Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day One: Sacramento to The Great Salt Lake

When we entered our cabin we decided to find it amusing, not frustrating, that the only storage space in the room consisted of a notebook-sized shelf and a half closet that perfectly fit our two overcoats and nothing more. Luckily, my father and I are both strict believers in famed 1920s adventurer Richard Halliburton's baggage ratio: the amount of luggage that you insist on carting about with you is inversely proportional to the amount of fun you have while traveling. Thusly, our super sleek, light-packing prowess helped us narrowly avoid 51 hours of drowning in various cases and satchels.

Once situated, our first stop was the dining car, where we were seated with two mildly off-putting middle aged spinster types whose relationship I still could not determine after an entire meal. When they retired to their separate roomettes, I looked at my dad, intrused.*

"What do you think their relationship is?"

"Love hate."

A perceptive and succinct man, he does not mince words.

From Sacramento to Reno we were chaperoned by two volunteer historic narrators provided by the illustrious California Railroad Museum. They genuinely meant well, but seemed to have severe stage fright, or perhaps speech impediments, or it could have been that they had just written their notes so small that they were difficult to read, but for whatever reason eavesdropping on fellow passengers and gawking at the passing scenery proved to be a more fulfilling pastime for me than listening to their commentary.

Two parties were of particular interest to me, spying on the various inhabitants of the Lounge. First, an elderly Amish couple, who sat silently munching on that traditional Amish snack, Flamin' Hot Cheetos. When I caught a glimpse of them later, they had not moved an inch, but the man had traced his hand on a napkin and was staring glumly at it while the woman glared angrily down at a tiny leather bound book in front of her. It would be a long trip back to Pennsylvania for those two.

The other was a very odd cowboy type gentlemen (who, as I typed the word cowboy in reference to him, drunkenly proclaimed to the rest of the lounge car that he was in fact a cowboy and because of his cowboy status he had certain extra privileges on train rides such as these) started calling out that he had seen a bear in the forest outside. Then, once he had our attention, he proceeded to also claim that he had seen a wooly mammoth and a tyrannosaurus rex. Later he graced us with impressions of the typical noises of various locomotives.

Of the scenery for this leg of the journey, I can say that I was duly impressed, the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing dramatic and changing vistas at every turn. The unbelievably quaint town of Colfax, California was of particular interest to me. It was founded in 1865 as Railroad Camp 20 as a living quarters for workers with the recently started T.R.*** When Speaker of the House and good friend to the late Abraham Lincoln, Schuyler Colfax, went to visit the site to see how the endeavor was progressing, the people there were so taken with his charisma and oratory that they named the town after him. I am still fully expecting this to happen at some small hamlet that I pass through.

Also, to my unending delight, I sighted numerous llama farms throughout the afternoon. Seeing those happy, insanely proportioned furry monsters frolicking through green pastures was almost as pleasing to me as the BUFFALO MEATLOAF we dined on that evening.

We ended the evening with the fabulous 1952 noir film, The Narrow Margin****, and yes, a bit of wine. The next morning we would awake to the blinding, infinitely expansive vistas of a distant Utahan desert.


*Intrused is a new word I have invented combining intrigued and confused, which, because of the way I have expertly fused them, foreshadows the eminent intrusion into other peoples lives which will inevitably follow when I succumb to such a sensation.
** Through which the railroad's highest point is at the old railroad colony of Norden, clocking in at 6939 feet above sea level.
***I decided that, due to my fondness for and intimacy with the Transcontinental Railroad, it was time for me to dub it with a catchy acronym nickname like T.R.
****Number 18 on my list of the top 100 greatest train movies of all time.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, October 29, 2010

East Coast Outfitters

First of all, please accept my sincerest apologies for not diverting you with more rail-lore and Californiana over the past few days- I got the flu and have been lying motionless, receiving herbal tea transfusions for the past 72 hours. Through the feverish haze I clung to the abstract deadline of noon, October 30th for me to be in top form, outfitted, and with my most trusted traveling companion, Richard Markuson, in order to board the California Zephyr headed "back east"* to Washington, D.C.

Back in the old days when some hearty, daring, or desperate soul would set out in search of their fortune on the wild frontier they would have to get "outfitted" with all of the most necessary vittles that they would need to survive for up to a year's time. One list of provisions that I particularly liked, meant for a party headed on an eight day trek in the Sierras, reads as follows:

8 lbs potatoes.
1 bottle whiskey.
1 bottle pepper sauce.
1 bottle whiskey.
1 box tea.
9 lbs onions.
2 bottles whiskey.
1 ham.
11 lbs crackers.
1 bottle whiskey.
1/2 doz. sardines.
2 bottles brandy, (4th proof.)
6 lbs sugar.
1 bottle brandy, (4th proof.)
1 bottle pepper.
5 gallons whiskey.
4 bottles whiskey. (old Bourbon)
1 small keg whiskey.
1 bottle of cocktails , (designed for a "starter.")

Notice that every third or forth item on the list is some type of alcohol. Oh, our ancestors!

Now, my father and I will only be on the train for four days, but planned, strategic outfitting is still crucial, if not a life-or-death situation. Amtrak provides three square meals per day with our über classy Superliner bedroom, so we will be packing more for entertainment than nourishment. Here are some of the highlights of our accouterments:

4 novels
1 bottle cabernet sauvignon
3 travel books
1 deck of playing cards
1 harmonica (someone please teach me to play harmonica!)
1 package of earplugs (apparently ol' dad is a snorer)
Various electronics
1 bottle pinot noir
2 lbs fresh fruits and vegetables (against scurvy)
1 deck of French vintage tarot cards
1 bottle port

So, thusly outfitted, the entire family, including our dog, escorted us to the station, the interior wall of which is covered with a mural dramatizing the January 8th, 1863 groundbreaking ceremony for the first Transcontinental Railroad. Note that this epic event occurred in my hometown, a mere two days after January 6th, when, 124 years later, I would be born. This can hardly be attributed to mere coincidence.

Three brilliant lights foretold the 11:59am arrival of the California Zephyr over the I Street bridge, and our journey had begun.


*I love how, hundreds of years after Manifest Destiny, the Oregon Trail, the Gold Rush, and the Transcontinental Railroad, my family still refers to anything east of the Sierra Nevadas as "back east," like a place we all came from at some time. If not our relatives, then at least our national historic narrative.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

San Francisco's Superstar Train, the Cable Car

After a day of rest in Sacramento, it was a quick 90 minute ride on the Capitol Corridor to Richmond, from which point one can take the BART anywhere in the Bay Area. I am back in San Francisco for one last week of work and travel preparation, so am taking this opportunity to fill your eager minds with "interesting" information about the place fondly known as The City* by us NorCal folks. As I have spent most of my adult life working in tourism in San Francisco, you can trust me as a reliable source in reference to San Francisco's second most famous landmark, The Cable Car.**

But anyway, the San Francisco cable car is the last of its kind on earth! So you've got to come here if you want to witness its majesty and be whisked up and down phenomenally steep hills by its tried-and-true wire rope and grip railway technology. When Andrew Hallidie first invented the thing in 1873, everyone was so skeptical of it that he could barely scrape together any investors to begin with, and on the day of its test run the gripman lost his nerve and refused to get in, forcing Hallidie to operate it himself. After the common folk were convinced, it became the new rage in public transit, at one time having a network of 112 miles and serving most of the city. Now, only 10.5 miles of track remain, but they are a glorious and historic 10.5 miles indeed. What makes them even more alluring is that no one actually knows how they function. When an awestruck Rudyard Kipling visited San Francisco in 1889, he described their mystery by saying, "There is no visible agency of their flight, but once in a while you shall pass a five-storied building humming with machinery that winds up an everlasting wire-cable, and the initiated will tell you that here is the mechanism. I gave up asking questions. If it pleases Providence to make a car run up and down a slit in the ground for many miles, and if for twopence-halfpenny I can ride in that car, why should I seek the reasons of the miracle?" I feel the same way, Mr. Kipling, and please Providence it does. A few more savory morsels of cable car trivia:
  • Originally a fare cost five cents, but now its fame has bloated its ego substantially and it will cost you five US dollars if you fancy that sensation of hanging off the side of a 100+ year old trolley like a very wealthy traveling spider monkey. I probably should not be incriminating myself by bragging about this, but I have been known to hop on and ride for a few blocks without paying just for the adrenaline rush. I usually pretend I am a confused yet well-meaning Dutch tourist if anyone asks.
  • Starting 1949 there has been a nail-bitingly intense Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest in Union Square to determine the most skillful bell-ringing personage in San Francisco. It began as a part of Friedel Klussmann's adorable campaign to save the cars from their annihilation by evil then-mayor Lapham. This year, weirdly, actual cable car operators were having some sort of union strike resulting in a boycott of the event, and a bunch of local radio disc jockeys competed instead.

If you are a real devotee to all of this railroad nonsense,*** then I would heartily recommend the totally free San Francisco Cable Car Barn and Museum, at the top of Nob Hill. The first cable car ever is on display there, along with other antique models and things, and you can watch the enormous wheels and pulleys and brakes and the cables themselves in action. On their website, they helpfully recommend that the best way to arrive at the museum is by cable car. If you are feeling peckish afterward, the most railtastic meals can be found at the Grubstake, an institution famous for their location (in an antique railroad car) their late hours (open until 4am!) and their menu (typical diner fare interspersed with Portuguese home cooking). You really can't go wrong with that combination, folks.

Stay tuned for more on historic, scenic and delicious San Francisco in the coming days.


*or SF, or Baghdad by the Bay, or, my personal favorite, Frisco.
The most famous landmark obviously being El Farolito on 24th and Mission, NOT Taqueria Cancun you tasteless barbarians.
***Don't deny it. I can see it on your face.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sacramento, Ho!

The ride to Sacramento was a journey to remember!

After settling in my usual haunt in the lounge car, I spent the first few hours of the ride alternating between reading, note-taking, gazing dreamily through the mist, and dozing, each diversion more pleasant than the last. When the hostess came round to make reservations for lunch, I thought, "Why not? I am running out of hardtack."

Come 1 o'clock, I was seated* with a retired couple from Santa Rosa, and we got on quite well, at first. They had flown to Seattle for the express purpose of taking the whole Coast Starlight route all the way to LA, a trip they had wanted to do for years. I ordered a meal that was alluringly described to me as "a warm smoked turkey and cheddar sandwich served on a multi grain roll." However, somewhere in the time between ordering and receiving our food, I think I may have offended one of my dining companions**, because suddenly everything I said was met with stony silence, and while attempting to regale them with my traveling stories (which you all know are riveting, to say the least) one would turn to the other and make statements about the passing scenery over whatever I was self-consciously saying. But, all was forgotten once my meal came, and I was confronted with the disconcerting fact that my sandwich, prepared in Amtrak's full service kitchen car, was merely a microwaved, pre-made, sandwich-like farce. Why, please tell me why, would any human ever think it acceptable to microwave bread to serve to other innocent humans? Give me cold bread, stale bread, hell, give me moldy bread over microwaved bread; Whatever those crazy micro waves do to bread molecules is a complete desecration to that Staff of Life, Bread.

Even so, it was undeniably better than airplane food, not too over priced, and came with a delicious pickle and complimentary beverage.

Retiring to the lounge after lunch, seriously questioning my self-worth and worried about the evening's dining options, I took it upon myself to make friends with some friendly person, and found someone to fit the bill immediately. He was a Canadian wwoofer, headed to Sacramento to do some volunteer farming. We were soon spotted by two other bohemian solo-traveler types also in search of camaraderie- an EMT who had been working in Yosemite and a traveling poet, respectively. We decided to celebrate our conglomeration and stave off hunger with various half-bottles of wine from the café car, run by the fabulously entertaining Flavio, who laughed at our jokes, sold us much too much*** wine, and made fun of us perfectly, to all of our delight.

Amtrak, if you are reading this,**** give Flavio a raise and hire his whole family.

We passed the night drinking and chatting like old friends, every now and again remarking to one another how lucky we were to pass the hours of darkness in such good company. How did we find each other? The only explanation I can think of is that the train literally has magical powers. We napped for a few hours, and before we knew it, it was 6am and we were in dark, sleepy Sacramento. I pointed the Canadian farmer in the direction of HI Sacramento, blocks away from the station in the world's most perfectly restored Victorian mansion, hopped on my bicycle and rode home along the river as the sun came up.

*In the Dining Car on Amtrak, they do "community seating" so if you are a party of less than four you'll meet new people!
**Was it when I responded to a comment about the pleasant irreverence of Los Angeles by saying that it was irreverent in the same way that giving someone the finger is irreverent? Was it when they talked about their love of their leisurely lives as retirees and I darkly grumbled something about my generation working till we die to pay off their social security? I don't know.
***No such thing.
****Which you should be, Amtrak!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The City Formerly Known As Duwamps

Before I delve into the details of my experience in Seattle,* humor me for just a moment while I muse about the railroad's development in the major commercial centers of the West, and how its growth shaped the way our cities were built.

Comparing places like Sacramento, Portland, and Seattle, one can see the major industries, transit, historical events, and follies of powerful men of each region that are still so apparent today. And, though each city's timeline is a bit different, and the railroad had a slightly different role from one city to the next, it is undeniable that the railroad was absolutely crucial to the economy and growth of all of these metropolitan areas. From the 1870s to 90s, when new railroads incorporated and started laying track into the frontier faster than towns could even be founded alongside them (hence the coining of the term "Hell on Wheels," used to describe me on more than one occasion) the fate of a colony lay in the hands of the railroad corporation. If some backwoods hamlet was left off the route, it was sure to collapse into obscurity as all commerce moved within easy reach of the railway.

For instance, when the Northern Pacific Railroad was working its way west from Minnesota, the chance to be the city selected to be its Western terminus was essentially priceless. In 1873 the city of Seattle offered the railroad $250 grand in cash and bonds, 7,500 town lots, 3,000 acres of undeveloped land, and half the waterfront. However, this deal wasn't sweet enough for the NPR, and Tacoma, WA became the last stop on its line. Surely dealings like this were the predecessors to our common contemporary practice of offering special incentives to big businesses for the chance to buy from them, a system which is probably one of the most negative legacies of the railroad. In 1893, the Great Northern Railway finally linked Seattle to the East; if it had not, perhaps Seattle would still be an unknown, uninteresting Northern outpost, like Port Townsend or, heaven forbid, Crescent City. After receiving railroad service, the population of Seattle quintupled within twenty years.

Anyway, so I arrived at King Street Station, and was greeted by an informative display explaining a $26.5 million restoration project to recreate its historic beauty, and promote sustainability in its design. Commendable efforts to rehabilitate a 104 year old station that still serves over 2.7 million passengers yearly.

The walk to the HI Seattle from the station was all of 3 blocks, taking me through the elaborate Chinatown gates and into what is known through the glories of politically correct civic rebranding as the International District. The hostel is huge, modern, and super clean, with more amenities than I could really comprehend. There was a room devoted to every activity that a backpacker could dream of: laundry room, TV room, computer room, library, lounge, dining room, kitchen... even their pantry was a walk-in room bigger than my bedroom in San Francisco. Finding nothing interesting in the Free Food section, I grabbed a cup of complimentary coffee, and perused their weekly, The Stranger, for something to entertain me. I settled on a concert at The Crocodile, to be preceded by a fabulous beverage called "The Bee's Knees" at a bar called Rendezvous, recommended to me by a classy lady at the front desk of the hostel. I can highly recommend both locales, and the bands that played (Concours d'Elegance, Kelley Stoltz, and The Hundred in the Hands, from Seattle, SF, and NYC respectively) as well.

I don't know what it is about being a lone traveler, but there is something magic about the independence you have as a stranger in an unknown city with no one and nothing to use as a security blanket to insulate yourself from the world around you. For instance, while at the concert, I noticed a respectable-looking gentleman also enjoying the music alone; We were able to strike up a conversation and become insta-friends, and because of our mutual love of jazz, made plans to seek out more musical entertainment the following evening. This kind of thing seems to happen very rarely when you travel with other people.

I think Seattle must have prepared itself for my arrival, because not only was it Restaurant Week, but the Earshot Jazz Festival was also underway. As I only had one full day in Seattle, I knew I had to take advantage of both within a 24-hour period,** and planned the next day accordingly. After spending the morning exploring Pioneer Square and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park,*** I was lavished with a three-course feast on a blue silk settee in the Fairmont Olympic Hotel's Restaurant, The Georgian, for the low, low price of $15. While in the hotel looking at paraphernalia from its history I found an old Union Pacific ad about the progress of American civilization that said "Sixty years ago a single track crossing the plains. Today the vast Union Pacific System to bring complete service to every part of the West. Sixty years ago a camp under the stars. Today the complete service of the new Olympic Hotel. That is Progress!" I then spent the afternoon up to my eyeballs in Scandinavian pride at the Nordic Heritage Museum, which featured myriad historical accounts of emigration from the region to the US, adorable Scandinavian folk arts of every persuasion, and an exhibition of the most aesthetically horrifying Finnish architecture that has ever accosted my eyeballs. My fellow musical fan and I then saw Seattle jazz-funk band The McTuff Trio play a dynamic free show at the Seamonster Lounge in one of Seattle's cooler outlying neighborhoods, Wallingford.

I suppose it is always better to be left wanting more, but it was not without a tinge of regret about the brevity of my stay that I boarded the Coast Starlight for the 20-hour trip south to the city of my birth, Sacramento.


*Named by David "Doc" Maynard to honor the famous last leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, Chief Seattle.
**Do you see how hard my life is? Sigh.
***Two awesome things about Seattle: John Nordstrom came here from Sweden as a 16 year-old with $5 to his name in 1887 and went on to found the famous shoe and clothing empire. Also, the first nightclub in Seattle was a fabulous gay bar/disco called Shelly's Leg, which opened in 1973. For the full story go here.

Forest, Mountain, and Port Land, Continued

I started the next day with very high expectations for Portland's gold standard in local, fresh roasted, direct trade coffee, Stumptown Coffee, but coming from a town with its fair share of coffee snobbery, I was sadly disappointed with the potent blend of caffeine, self importance, and uncomfortable seating that I found there. I knew that I had to be at the wedding in the Hoyt Arboretum, in Washington Park, by two, so I gave myself a few hours for a leisurely* bike ride through the area. Something in that plan went horribly awry, however, and at 1:50 I found myself on the side of a huge mountain covered in forest, gasping for breath, completely disoriented, and wildly attempting to flag down passing cars for help. At last, two angels dressed as rich old ladies pulled up to me, and, having just left the Arboretum, agreed to shuttle me up to the summit. They asked me if it was, by any chance, a Polish wedding, and I diplomatically responded that it was quite possible, not knowing to what they could have been referring. I arrived in the lovely meadow just in time for the traditionally dressed polka band to march in the wedding party, and it all made sense. Someone please remind me to have old men in lederhosen play accordions at my wedding? Thank you.

I would definitely recommend Washington Park to anyone who has any interest in anything beautiful or alive. The park is home to Portland's famous Rose and Japanese Gardens, the aforementioned arboretum, the Oregon Zoo (which is surrounded by an antique railway that unfortunately is only active from May to September) and winding roads, trails, and woods where gorgeous castles, mansions, and fairytale cottages cling to the hillsides, engulfed in lush foliage. One could easily spend all day there.

The reception included the three things universally necessary for a wedding to be considered a success in my book:
  1. Live dance music (requests accepted!)
  2. Beautiful cake that is equally pleasing to eat as to look at
  3. An open bar
They also had a delicious buffet, homemade fake mustaches, and when I decided the time had come to start a limbo tournament, all attendees humored me and thereby secured their status as "Awesome."

Apparently the third time is the charm, because the next morning, in my desperation to experience true Portland café heaven, I found the little gem of Three Friends Coffee House. The kindest barista on earth steamed me a velvet cappuccino, complimented my choice of biscotti, and let the voice of Bessie Smith waft through the sunny room as I sank into a very satisfactorily squishy armchair. With that worthy goal accomplished, I knew that Portland and I could part ways amicably.

The train to Seattle took a little over three hours, and was uneventful save for the unceasing horror/intrigue of watching a fellow passenger consume a seemingly never-ending stream of prepackaged snack foods and sugared beverages. Literally from the moment we pulled away from Union Station, until the announcement of our arrival at King Street, he had moat of brightly colored cellophane, and plastic creating a protective wall around himself and the rest of the passengers, and a growing layer of sodium, corn syrup, and saturated fat building barriers between his arteries and organs and other important anatomical things of that nature. I continued to chew on my ever-hardening hardtack as we rode past the misty forests and innumerable inlets of the Puget Sound, and the shiny city formerly known as Duwamps came into view.

* I never do anything at any pace but leisurely, as a rule.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Getting off the train and hopping onto my bike to leisurely glide along the Eastbank Esplanade was like a dream, crossing over and under Portland's famous bridges, each documenting the technology and style of a different era. I have visited the city before, so I was more interested in looking for Portland's modus operandi this weekend. I knew I could dispense with the formalities of cursory sightseeing and treat the city like a casual friend I hadn't seen in a while. Also, I was not only some hapless visitor here, I had friends getting married on Sunday, which allowed me to flatter myself with a sense of purpose of some kind.

I was immediately charmed by the Hawthorne Hostel, which is a small home in the hip Hawthorne District, the capital of Portland's obscure, artsy lumberjack scene. Entering through the big front porch, under their very wild looking eco-roof, I knew I could feel quite at ease there, especially when I was warmly greeted by Shawn, who not only directed me to the hostel's vast printed resources for every type of traveler, but also lent to me from his personal library and introduced me to the Independent Publishing Resource Center, now and forever the object of my most passionate devotion. I immediately procured some Trader Joe's muesli from the Free Food section (a propitious sign if there ever was one) scoured the weekly paper, the Portland Mercury, and decided to immediately attend a feminist film night at In Other Words, a local feminist bookstore and community center. We watched and discussed The Runaways, about teen aged girls losing their minds and becoming drug addicts and sexual objects all in the name of female liberation. There was free popcorn.

The next morning I set out to see what Portland was really about, which over the next few days I found is essentially coffee houses, obscure artistic pursuits, and independence from any structure outside of a cooperative farm/organic grocery/music venue/coffee roastery/and antique bike shop. I would highly recommend that anyone on their way to Portland not waste their time with the Saturday Market, once an interesting community event and now full of elderly new age hacks selling overpriced lavender bath sachets and the like while tempting you with the ubiquitous local confection they call an "Elephant Ear." It's not so appetizing as it sounds. Soon after that mistake I found myself in the IPRC, gleefully rummaging through beautiful artisan card stock and designing and mass-producing my new calling cards with the help of their charming volunteer, Joseph. I will attempt to post some sort of documentation of said products soon, if I can master any sort of technological feat.

Within the gravitational pull of Powell's City of Books, Portland's infamous enormous independent bookstore, I got lost in some sort of time warp and emerged 3-4 hours (days? weeks?) later with copies of The Old Patagonian Express and Democracy in America in hand, ready to soak up some of Portland's infamous coffee culture at The Pied Cow, a mysterious and dark old Victorian made into a sweet cafe with a huge garden complete with fire pit. I started reading The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux, a travel writer whose biting wit and condescension for all living things makes me look like the dullest and kindest observer to ever set foot in a train compartment. Thus far, I would highly recommend it.

To end my evening I met up with my two beautiful friends Peter and Lindsay, whose wedding I would attend the next afternoon, for some very important pre-wedding karaoke at a very behind-a-gas-station bar called "Ladd's Inn". Let's just say, I'm not providing a link to the establishment, and after a duo of Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" I graced the motley audience with my own solo rendition of The Spin Doctors' "Two Princes." Classic.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sacramento to Portland on the Coast Starlight

As if the mystery and excitement of starting this trip wasn't enough in itself, my train was scheduled to depart from Sacramento at 11:59 pm to Portland. This ticket cost a very affordable $80 with my NARP discount.* Amtrak's ticketing system is rather anachronistic but I (and by "I" I obviously mean my father) somehow managed to box and check in my bicycle** and get to the proper platform to wait, peering through the darkness on tiptoe ready to catch the first glimpse of the train as it came round the bend. I was chatting with a sweet older couple about their experiences with long-distance train travel (I was appalled to hear that they preferred Greyhound to Amtrak) when there was a dramatic collective gasp as the bright headlights of the train appeared preceding its arrival. I helped them with their luggage and settled into my coach seat next to a middle-aged Frenchman. How did I know he was French? I said, "Hello, good evening" and he responded "I am sorry- I am French and therefore cannot understand you." I would have accepted this rather eloquent response were it not for the English copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road that he had on his lap, but that is beside the point. I settled in to try to go to sleep.

I don't want to dwell on this too much, but I just need to say now that letting people fool themselves into thinking they can get anything approaching even a restful catnap while sitting constrained to an upright position should be an offense punishable in a court of law. With that said, the moment it was light enough to see my own hand and the café opened, I leapt over my French neighbor and raced to the observation lounge to sip coffee, gnaw on homemade hardtack***, and watch the sun rise over the fields and low mountains of the California-Oregon border.

The first stop of the morning was Klamath Falls, Oregon. The area was first settled (read: colonized) in the 1860s, and there is a museum in an old pioneer fort just north of the small town. The scenic volcano caldera Crater Lake, once believed by native tribes to be so sacred that it was forbidden to speak of or look directly at it, is also nearby. Another town of interest in the vicinity is Shaniko. A perfect example of the all powerful hand of the railroad at the beginning of the 20th century, Shaniko became a booming center of textile shipping when it was made the terminal point of the Southern Pacific Railroad. When that station was closed, the town essentially went into a state of cryogenic suspension and hasn't changed since.

I spent almost the entire day in the lounge car admiring the views, overhearing odd conversations, documenting various demographic breakdowns of train passengers, and chatting with other tourists and train staff. I don't know what it is about putting loads of strangers in a long glass box and sending them off into the wilderness together, but everyone was talking like we had known each other for ages. I witnessed teenage girls telling middle-aged women long sagas about disappointing boyfriends, strangers asking each other their opinions on Steig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo**** and very chummy relationships between staff and riders. My favorite involved one of my seatmates requesting to flick the conductor's hat, him silently shrugging his shoulders, and her running up, flicking it, then shrieking with delight as he asked the rest of the car if she'd been drinking.

The route through the Cascades and the Willamette Valley was so breathtaking that my trite descriptions could never do it justice. The mountains and forests were at times partly shrouded in mist, and at others seemed to glow. The conductor announced lakes, canyons, and waterfalls to us in the observation car, and we were so thrilled over the views that when we unwittingly missed one particularly scenic waterfall a few over zealous photographers nearly demanded that we turn the train around. Our voracious appetite for the natural scenery made me think we are a bit starved for it in our daily lives.

After a few more hours of idyllic dairy farms and vineyards, I was in Portland's Union Station, five minutes ahead of schedule. I hopped on my shoddily reassembled bike and headed towards the Portland Hawthorne Hostel.


*You do have to book three days in advance for the cheaper rate, calling for an amount of foresight that I generally lack.
** This service costs $5 plus $15 if you need to buy a bike box. Well worth it if your bike is as awesome as mine is.
*** Lisa's Victorian Hardtack Recipe: Mix a goodly amount of rolled oats, a sprinkling of baking powder and salt, and whatever other grains and flours you have on hand with not-too-much olive oil, rendered bacon fat, organic coconut oil, or other fatty substance. Add a dash of agave or sugar if you see fit. Mash it about with enough water to make a paste, shape it into small, flat cracker shapes, poke holes in them, and bake them at a low heat until they are rock hard and golden brown. Wrap them in parchment and you are ready to travel without fear of starvation for the next year or so. If you should use them much longer that that, do watch for weevils and the like.
**** I counted five copies being actively read in the lounge.

If you know how to do footnotes in a better way, please tell me.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Go By Train

"Travel by rail is a different affair; and having unpacked your books and unstrapped your wraps in your Pullman or Central Pacific Palace-car, you may pursue all the sedentary avocations and amusements of a parlor at home; and as your housekeeping is done- and admirably done- for you by alert and experienced servants; as you may lie down at full length or sit up, sleep or wake, at your choice; as your dinner is sure to be abundant, very tolerably cooked, and not hurried; as you are pretty certain to make acquaintances on the car; and as the country through which you pass is strange, and abounds in curious and interesting sights, and as the air is fresh and exhilarating- you soon fall into the ways of the voyage; and if you are a tired business man, or a wearied housekeeper, your careless ease will be such a rest as certainly most busy and overworked Americans know how to enjoy."

-Charles Nordhoff, California for Travellers and Settlers, 1873

How could we, as a nation, have forgotten so quickly something so glorious as all that? 110 years after the first train ran in the United States and the railroad catalyzed the country's industrialization, modern commerce, vast geographic expansion, and the development of our national identity, our modern railway system appears to have been sidelined by an American obsession with the speed, control, and cutting edge technology of automobiles and jet airplanes. While we relied almost solely on railroads for intercity travel and freight until the 1920s, and they played an important role in all of our most crucial moments in history, in the past 60 years trains have rapidly lost their place of honor amongst American modes of transit. Seeing this travesty, I have taken it upon myself to endeavor to single handedly restore the honor and glory to this historic institution.

In the pursuit of this goal, and my constant Quixotic search for romance and adventure, I will spend the next few months exploring the farthest reaches of this continent by rail. En route, I will discuss anything that comes to mind or crosses my path as accurately as possible, though I will not deny that I have been accused of having a literary voice that leans toward drama and exaggeration on occasion. In this travelogue you, dear Reader, can look forward to reading my constantly changing philosophies regarding American history, politics, and society, between yarns about fellow train passengers and employees, foreign and domestic travelers, and local figures that I come across. In a nutshell, I will be reflecting on the pleasures and curiosities of riding the rails, abiding in hostels, and generally living the life of a modern American hobo (albeit a rather luxurious hobo lifestyle to be sure).

Everyone seems to be complaining about The Great Recession of recent years, and making negative comparisons to The Great Depression of the 1930s. I, however, am looking at our current social and economic climate as a golden opportunity to explore something that, if I had some sort of lucrative corporate job lined up right after college, I wouldn't have the time, initiative, or daring to do. I invite you to do the same, or at least follow my exploits from the comfort and safety of your cubicle after you check facebook.

Just to give you an idea of what is in store in classic booster spirit, allow me to entice you back by listing a few of my routes and the fabulous sights therein.
  • The Pacific Northwest- Seattle, Portland, Dunsmuir, San Francisco, and that epicenter of Western railroad culture, the glorious hidden gem of Sacramento.
  • The Transcontinental Railroad- Starting in our state's fair capital, meandering through Gold Country, Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas, Salt Lake City, The Rocky Mountains, Denver, Chicago, The Great Lakes, and finally, Washington D.C.
  • The Acela Express- Connecting some of the East Coast's most important capitals, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C.
  • The Mississippi- Chicago, Memphis, and New Orleans, linked by our most famous river, delicious cuisine, and a fabulous music culture.
  • Cross-Canadian Extravaganza- connecting all the most important cities of America's hat, from Vancouver, B.C. to Halifax Nova Scotia
  • and many more. If you live by an Amtrak route, invite me to your home and I will come and visit you. I kid you not.
Also, bringing my impressive patriotism and love of Americana to a whole new level, I will participate in a 17th century style Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts, complete with period food, dress, and actors. I am open to suggestions as to the most interesting historic locale in which to celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve.

I sincerely hope that my exploits will inspire you to travel about in a new way, or will at least be mildly diverting for the duration.