Sunday, October 31, 2010
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?"
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
8 lbs potatoes.
1 bottle whiskey.
1 bottle pepper sauce.
1 bottle whiskey.
1 box tea.
9 lbs onions.
2 bottles whiskey.
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.")
4 novels1 bottle cabernet sauvignon3 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)
1 bottle pinot noir2 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.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
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
Thursday, October 21, 2010
- Live dance music (requests accepted!)
- Beautiful cake that is equally pleasing to eat as to look at
- An open bar
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
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
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
"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.
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.