Wednesday, August 25, 2010

From the Archives - Bike Tour Journal


The recent train trip I took with my family couldn’t help but remind me of another grand tour of the U.S., which was a cross-country bicycle tour that my wife Erin and I did in 1994 (getting married in Boulder, Colorado along the way). I carried a laptop computer along with me and, using command-line terminal emulation software, a 2400-baud modem, and CompuServe, e-mailed reports to family and friends as we went. These dispatches were somewhat infrequent because we were camping and had very little access to electricity, much less a phone line. Still, I managed about 38,000 words and have in my archives an account of the trip that is a lot better than nothing.

We didn’t pack light. We figured we’d be out long enough not to want to do without various comforts. Plus, since Erin hadn’t been a bike racer, I needed a certain amount of ballast to make my energy expenditure roughly equal to Erin’s. Here’s a list of what I had on my bike:

Below is my final dispatch from the road. I’ve edited it a bit for length (having become, believe it or not, slightly less verbose in the sixteen years since I wrote this). I’ve sprinkled in a few photos as well.

Bike Tour Final Dispatch - November 11, 1994

Now we’re in CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA. Our bike tour is over! From here, we fly back to San Francisco, find a place to live, and get jobs. Our final tour statistics:

· 7,450 miles

· 24 states covered and one Canadian province

· 203,660 feet of climbing

· 8 months on the road

· $5‑6,000 apiece in expenses

· 3 cracked rims

· pairs of tires each (the last pair, 2-inch-wide Continentals, lasted 6 months!)

· 1 broken rack (in two places—It broke for the last time on the very last day!)

· 5 chains

· 1 chainring (though both drivetrains are wasted now, along with both our headsets)

· 1 exploded bottom bracket

· 2 crashes (both Erin, and both minor)

· 1 broken bike frame

Having completed a journey of such length, of course, I feel I should offer more details, more thematic commentary: something, perhaps, that might synthesize the details into something of meaning, a lesson somewhere. Throughout out tour, I’ve simply taken mental note of a million things I’ve seen, with no effort to organize them. However, an odd thing happened as we travelled through Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: certain truths about travelling in North America assembled themselves more convincingly than they had before.

We hadn’t actually intended to visit Myrtle Beach at all, having heard it was congested and touristy. We considered a roundabout route to Charleston, but decided to take the direct route—U.S. 17—in the interests of having plenty of cushion before our non‑refundable flight, and to arrive here when our friend expected us to. Well, U.S. 17 was a nightmare around North Myrtle Beach, a giant 6‑lane highway with hundreds of buffet restaurants and tourist schlock stores on either side. One had a sign out front that said, “Ray Bans $14” and “Super Clearance Sale” and such things; my Ray Bans broke recently and Erin needs a new bathing suit, and we both needed a break from the hellish traffic, so we stopped in. For sale were 25‑cent sunglasses, beach towels, salt water taffy (never did try this), and just gobs of other stuff, like $2 Myrtle Beach t‑shirts, which say “MB” on them, like the place has become its own brand.

I looked at some Ray Ban Wayfarers like my old ones—marked down 50%, from $104 to $52. Of course, actual suggested retail is only $50, and any army surplus store sells them for $35. I asked about the $14 Ray Bans advertised, and the clerk brought out a different pair. Totally fake. They said Ray Ban on them, but were obviously cheap junk made in China. I told the clerk, “These are fake.” He looked at me as if surprised; then, he looked down at the glasses for a few seconds, looked back up at me with a visage of profound disappointment, and—as if he’d just learned a painful lesson—he said sadly, “Yes. They are.” We left without buying anything.

The Myrtle Beach strip runs for 15‑20 miles, and is comprised of three highways: State 49, which isn’t bad and is the closest to the water; Business 17, which is a hellish phantasmagoria of tourist shops, restaurants, hotels, and motels; and, regular U.S. 17, which is only slightly less built‑up than the Business Loop. Because this is the off‑season, the motels were actually really cheap—$23, a sign advertised. Since the KOA Kampground was $21, and we were stressed out from all the traffic, we decided to see about the motel. Erin talked the proprietor into not charging us extra for a second person. The room was fairly seedy; all the lights were broken except one lamp. The beds were lasagnes of mattress: a broken‑down box spring; a smashed, fruit‑leather middle mattress; a slightly newer but also hammered top mattress. My feet hung over the end, causing the foot of the bed to slope drastically towards the floor, almost like a reverse hammock. Dozens of cockroaches were visible to the trained eye.

Our room had a kitchen, though, which was nice. We had no towels and no toilet paper so Erin went back to the office. When twenty minutes passed and she still hadn’t returned, I knew the newspaper reporter in her had come out. She came back with some amazing facts about Myrtle Beach, which I want to share with you. These are from memory, but I think they’re mostly accurate….

Back in the ‘30s or so, the beach was accessible only by ferry. Then, a railroad bridge was built, and eventually a road. Back then it was nothing, just a small beach that farmers went to occasionally. Then, it became the yearly vacation spot for plantation laborers. These poor souls worked 364 days a year, and as their reward they were taken to the beach once a year. Then, South Carolina decided it wanted to have a public beach, since North Carolina and Florida had beaches, so it was made a public beach. A motel was built. From there, it just somehow became a popular vacation spot, despite having no particularly distinctive merits. Motel after motel went up, and people thronged to the area. It became known as a cheap place for middle class people to vacation, and its reputation somehow spread. (Today, it is still known as a cheap vacation spot; its year‑round residents rank 37th in average income for resort residents.) Enough motels and restaurants had been built by the ‘50s that Myrtle Beach was incorporated as a city. Most of the motels look, judging by their architecture, to have been built in the ‘50s.

Today [i.e., in 1994], Myrtle Beach is the 3rd most popular tourist trap in the nation, with only Disneyland (#1) and Disney World (#2) ranking higher. There are between 15 and 20 miles of motels and hotels, totaling more than 24,000 rooms. During the summer, every single motel is at 100% occupancy, all the time. Our little room goes for $65 during the summer; Erin asked if that was why he could “give it away” during the off season. “Give it away!?” cried the owner. “Hell no, I’m not giving it away—I’m still making money! You know how much I pay for that room? $4.50 a day, including the mortgage, electricity, everything. The maid is another $5 or so. At $20 a room I’m still making good money. At $65 a room I’m making a killing.” Now, he says, Myrtle Beach is supposed to be getting its own major airport, because people travel there from all over the world. This past summer, he said, it was thronged with Germans, because they get a favorable cash exchange rate. Last year, he said, it was full of Japanese because of the strong yen.

We were surprised to see that there were still a fair number of tourists there, even in November. And yet, the beach itself was deserted. The strangest thing about Myrtle Beach is that the beach itself is not all that big. It runs along the ocean for miles and miles, but so do the motels and skyscrapers—and the beach is very shallow, a thin strip of sand compared to the densely packed motels that run row after row inland. From an airplane, Myrtle Beach would look like a giant urban complex, gilded scantily at once edge by a thin fringe of beach. It’s amazing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve marveled at the proportions of natural beauty to garish commercialism. Niagara Falls was 5% breathtaking geographical phenomenon, 95% wax museum, restaurant, souvenir shop, motel, Ripley’s Believe‑It‑or‑Not Museum, etc. But Myrtle Beach isn’t even a one‑of‑a‑kind place—the motel owner assured us it isn’t unique in any way. I myself have seen many beaches, both in California and along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, that are just as pretty. Its popularity is the result of some queer kind of social inertia—it developed a critical mass of tourist traffic that afforded more and more motels, restaurants, and souvenir stores, and people come simply because it’s there, because it has buffets, because it has a Ripley’s Believe‑It‑or‑Not, because it has miniature golf, because it caters to tourists.

Perhaps the success of fried foods, cookie-cutter gifts shops, and tourist-targeted paraphernalia is why so many touristy places we’ve been to have seemed alarmingly similar. Why should I get continual déjà‑vu’s of Estes Park when I’m at Niagara Falls? Why should I be reminded of Niagara Falls when I visit that Amish settlement in PA? Why does Gettysburg, one of the oldest cities in the east, remind me of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco? It’s as though all these places were designed and built by the same developers, the same commercial geniuses, all selling souvenirs built in the same factory.

Not that there aren’t all kinds of great places to visit that aren’t tourist meccas. The Au Sable Chasm in New York, which (like Niagara Falls) claims to be the first tourist attraction in the U.S., is likely nothing you’ve even heard of. It was a peaceful bike ride getting there—none of the gridlock we encountered in Maine or Niagara Falls. It has enough beauty to be a destination for all kinds of folks, but it’s not heavily promoted. To somebody with an entrepreneurial spirit, it might be thought of as mismanaged—an opportunity that slipped through the cracks.

We’ve seen and appreciated some really fine things on our tour without being saturated in the trappings of the tourism industry. The White Sands National Monument was breathtaking, and is the only place in the world with giant gypsum dunes. We enjoyed, as I have in the past, the odd lunar‑looking landscape and vast panorama of Mount Evans, the highest road in North America. We saw the roots of giant trees hanging above us, suspended in mid‑air: the Loess hills, a strange collection of highly erodible hills that exist only in southern Iowa and China. We can proudly say we’ve walked along the widest main street in America. And we’ve enjoyed the most absolutely breathtaking mountain landscapes we’ve ever seen, in Mora County, New Mexico. Why haven’t these places been exploited?

Well, White Sands is in a missile testing area—development there is impossible. And nobody wants to camp in an undeveloped area like that with no running water or indoor toilets. Mount Evans doesn’t have enough oxygen for comfort, even if you drive up in a car. And, unless you stop to talk to a trucker or farmer you won’t ever learn about the Loess Hills; they’re more of an oddity than anything striking enough to make into a wax statue or souvenir. Our tour was fun because we went to out-of-the-way places and had non-dazzling but pleasant interactions we had with locals all along the route. We’d roll into a place like Waltham, Minnesota, or LaCrosse, Kansas, and the locals would say, “You came all the way across country to come here!? They were flattered, and thus friendly.

Tourist traps defy casual conversations with locals, because to make money requires a high ratio of tourists to locals. Moreover, places like Mora County are resistant to tourism because it threatens the character of the place. Locals will talk to bike tourists because we aren’t threatening; we’re not going to fill their town with tour buses and parking lots.

Travel—especially of the backpacking and bike touring variety—can be exciting, but the flip side of excitement is unpredictability and discomfort. We are aware of travelers who don’t want any surprises. For example, we camped at a KOA in Virginia (having no other options) and to our surprise and delight, it had trees, which most KOAs we encountered did not. Leaves fell on our table, offering us instances of natural randomness in an otherwise perfectly manicured camping environment. Erin mentioned to the cashier how much we liked the trees. The cashier responded, “I had a guy in here the other night who registered, went out to his site, and came back complaining about the trees. He said they weren’t supposed to be there. He said he’d been camping at KOAs across the country and had never seen one with trees. He was really mad, and in fact he left!”

Bike touring isn’t for everyone. Erin and I fought a fair bit during this trip. During a freak spring snow, we suffered freezing cold feet, and had to jump up and down in the road to beat blood back into them. We were feasted on by insects throughout the Midwest. We ate cold meals on a number of occasions when I couldn’t get the camp stove to work. We had our bags burgled several times by raccoons or squirrels. We spent hours each day packing and unpacking our bikes. But every day was an adventure. We don’t have a lot of souvenirs from our trip, but then, how often is a tourist spot an adventure?

dana albert blog

dana albert bike tour blog

Friday, August 13, 2010

Train Trip - Part Three

NOTE: This post is rated PG for mild potty talk.


If the “part three” in the title of this post hasn’t tipped you off, I’ll tell you now this post is part of a series. I’m trying to mimic the wild success of the various series that everybody seems to like so well: the Harry Potter books, the Star Wars movies, etc. I guess when a series is upscale it’s called a “cycle.” Yeah, that’s it. The albertnet train trip cycle!

There’s a bit of a chronology problem here: I meant to post this a day or two ago but didn’t have Internet access. So this post leaves off with Flagstaff, Arizona, even though I’m in Los Angeles now, on the final day of the trip, in a hotel lobby. (Lousy music is playing here. Were I a dictator, I would ban songs in which the singer repeats the chorus more than 100 times total and/or 10 times in a row. A bit ago some countryesque wailer did “I want it back” ad infinitum and then a male “vocalist” repeated “This is the time” endlessly.) There’s not too much to say that’s train-related about L.A., other than we spent about 3½ hours on a bus yesterday getting to and from Santa Monica. Excellent people-watching and we didn’t have to park.

Scenery – part one

Once we went from Kansas into Colorado—from Central to Mountain time—it was as though the Midwest ended and the West began, in the span of just a few miles. The landscape went from tamed, orderly, and irrigated to scrubby, varied, and wild. We also went from largely 2-D to 3-D: hills and mountains began to appear as we made our way across Colorado and New Mexico. I imagine all that farmland gives a feeling of comfort to a Midwesterner, but the rugged Western landscape better captures my imagination. It’s the last land to be settled, and yet feels older; little towns look stuck in time. I’m reminded of the many road trips I’ve taken between California and Colorado with family or college buddies, and how enjoyable they were: singing along with the stereo, no A/C, windows rolled down, flying my hand out the window and feeling the burning wind against it, my back stuck to the seat with sweat. This next generation will be missing out as the A/C-less cars go gradually extinct.

It’s tempting to say it would be nice to open the window of the train. In reality that might mean a lot of diesel smoke or something. And I have to say, the air in the train—though it can get stale due to the A/C—is a fair bit more comfortable than suffering through the heat we’ve passed through. I hopped off the train the other evening somewhere in Iowa and was hit by this massive wall of damp heat, just like a steam room. I gave a gasp of astonishment and several of my fellow passengers (smokers, mostly) chuckled with recognition. This train—the Southwest Chief, which follows a more southern route than the California Zephyr we went east on—goes through such places as Needles, California which is said to have some of the highest temperatures in the world. Erin had lunch in Needles once when it was 120 degrees out.

We just came upon the most gorgeous cloud I’ve seen in over sixteen years (that is, since the last time I was in New Mexico):

Train architecture – part one

Our family sleeping room spans the whole width of the front of a sleeper car, so there’s a window on either side. A narrow hallway runs down the middle of this car, with smaller sleepers on both sides. These smaller sleeping rooms consist of two seats facing each other; the lower folds into a bed and a bunk swings down from above. Two people sharing such a car better get along, because they’re facing each other all day long. Toward the end of the hallway is where all the carry-on baggage goes. Across from this is the door through which you enter and exit the train, and next to this a very narrow stairwell with a couple of 90-degree bends in it. Upstairs are more sleeper cars; there’s a very narrow, low hallway on one side, with windows a child can see out of but not an adult (they’re too low). As the train lurches from side to side it’s a trick not to slam into the outer wall or—worse—fall through a curtain into somebody’s sleeping compartment.

To go from one car to another you have to go upstairs. This is where the doors are between cars. There’s a no-man’s land between cars with intimidating sliding plates for a floor and manifolds protecting you from the elements and, I suppose, from jumping. (When it’s really hot and humid, you get a taste of the air outside the train.) The doors to and from this in-between space are electric, with a large rectangular steel button you press to open the door. There’s another door-opening button at foot level; when I showed this to the kids there began a constant battle over whose turn it is to open the doors as we make our way along.

Lindsay kicks this door button with real attitude: six years old going on teenager. She strides along, sucking her two sucky-fingers, and boots that button as if kicking a yapping dog out of the way (though of course she’d never kick a dog). I’ve tried to tell her just to push on the button, but it’s useless. There’s nothing definably wrong with her technique, just like my music teacher in elementary school couldn’t discipline me for my singing manner. (I had an over-the-top enthusiasm that was clearly insincere, but not in any way the teacher could nail me for. How do you send a kid to the office for singing ironically?)

Situation room – part one

When it comes to public restrooms, I think it’s safe to say most adults will get through their business as quickly as possible. These places are a necessary evil. But kids find fascination wherever they go, and this is no exception. Lindsay is just learning to read and makes her way through every placard, sign, and logo she comes across. She’s not comfortable flying solo in a train restroom so I’ve had to crowd in there with her on several occasions. The worst was when we both had to do serious downloads, while Alexa was waiting outside to be escorted back to our seats.

As I prepared the ring-shaped paper toilet seat liner, carefully tearing at the perforated points, idly wondering why train and airline bathrooms use the same liners as other public toilets, with the same paper tongue that is supposed to reach the water in the bowl and thus secure the ring, even though the water level is nowhere nearly high enough with a train toilet to reach the paper tongue, Lindsay asked (in her own words) for a full etymological exegesis on the brand name “Rest Assured.” It’s not easy to explain branding to a child. I don’t really know what these toilet seat liners actually assure us of. They’re really just protecting us from an unsavory idea, when it comes right down to it. (If this entire discussion makes you uncomfortable, I suggest you avoid the next few paragraphs and skip ahead to the section titled “Train architecture – part two.”)

Lindsay had a leisurely time of it, pausing in her business to lean forward and try to read a placard on a trash compartment door that said, “Used Diapers & Sanitary Napkins.” That first word, “Used,” is pretty tricky when you think about it, and the others were even harder. I read the placard for her, exhorted her to hurry up, then had to explain what a sanitary napkin is. There is no A/C in the restroom, and no ventilation.

While Lindsay enjoyed her session, I idly looked more at the trash compartment and discovered that although it had two little spring-loaded doors—the one I mentioned already and another next to it reading “Trash”—they both led to the same receptacle. I had to wonder exactly why they did this split-door arrangement. Are there lots of passengers whose need for order includes segregating their normal, minimally grody trash from diapers and sanitary napkins? And among these compulsive neat-freaks, is there a significant subset that fails to notice that the split-trash system is just a sham? (Amtrak’s catering to a tiny subset of the population reminded of the TV screens that used to hang in Bart subway stations with written statements like “Watch the gap” that were translated, in a picture-in-picture arrangement, into sign language. You know, for those deaf illiterate people.)

Relieving herself must give Lindsay a strong feeling of well-being. Halfway through wiping, in the midst of a toilet paper inspection, she said, “I love you so much.” Such timing. “Uh, you are talking to me, aren’t you?” I said. Nonplussed, she said of course she was. The heat and fumes were really getting to me. Alexa was restless outside, telling us to hurry up. According to the slow choreography the situation demanded, Lindsay and I switched places and she showered the restroom with ricocheted water from the hydrant-like sink spigot while I unburdened my own overfed body in the much-abused commode. Finally done, I washed my hands before flushing, so I could plug my ears with clean hands during the flush. (Like a passenger jet, these train toilets have the loudest, most violent flush you could possibly imagine, seemingly capable of tearing a man’s toupee off and greedily swallowing it.)

Alas, the jet of water was too directional to completely clean the bowl. It was a rifle and what we needed was a sawed-off shotgun. As Alexa protested outside and my brain wilted in the heat and reek, I flushed the wretched toilet three more times before deciding it was okay to leave. By this point Lindsay had had enough of the place as well, and suggested a Lemony-Snicket-like title for it: “The Bad Bathroom.” I joined in with “The Lugubrious Lavatory” and later we got Alexa in on the game (“The Terrible Toilet” was one of her contributions).

(Don’t get the wrong idea here, by the way: I’m not complaining about Amtrak. The restrooms are about the only thing these trains have in common with the airlines. The people onboard the train are friendly and helpful, and everything is more comfortable.)

Train architecture – part two

One night we had a minor crisis involving the bunk beds. Erin decided to take the larger of the two upper berths instead of sharing the lower bunk with me. This meant the smaller of the upper berths was the only one available to the kids, and the other kid would have to settle for the smaller lower birth—the smallest and lowliest bed of all. Lindsay began to weep. Like Alexa, she naturally assumed that birth order would define things and she’d be stuck with the lousy bed. Alexa, to console her, began to sing the praises of the lower berth: more headroom, greater safety, etc. I mentioned the lightning storm I’d watched from the lower berth’s window in the middle of our first night. But as I couldn’t promise another lightning storm, this was little solace for Lindsay. I suggested that they share the top berth: no dice.

These are the conflicts that test a parent’s mettle, especially after he’s just spent twenty minutes digging through five compartments each of half a dozen carry-on bags, in the narrow hallway of a lurching train, for clean pajamas, and finding them twisted together with dirty laundry, sandals, and other personal effects, and is tired from the stress of catching two different trains earlier in the day and rescuing carry-on bags from a locker with a sketchy fingerprint reader, when his entire back and both feet are itching from mosquito bites, and the other sleeping car passengers have their doors open for ventilation and can hear every syllable of our family disputes.

I suppose I could have played the “strict parent” card and told Lindsay to take the lower berth “because I said so!” but I’m not into big battles, tears, etc. and gave the kids a bit longer to work it out on their own. Finally Alexa suggested that I pay one of them to take the bottom bunk. I pointed out that I shouldn’t have to pay, because my bed situation doesn’t change either way, but that I felt a financial arrangement might be just the thing. After a spell of haggling Alexa agreed to pay Lindsay $0.75 for the privilege of taking the top bunk. See? Kids can work it out. And in the process they learned a valuable lesson: money talks.

Scenery – part two

I spent a fine afternoon watching New Mexico roll by. (Never mind that it’s actually holding still while the train rolls by; you still use the terms “sunrise” and “sunset,” don’t you?) Red rolling hills dotted with scrubby plants, like an extreme close-up of razor stubble. Higher hills and buttes, mesas, all those cool Spanish-named geological features, and mountains here and there (the Sangre de Christos I reckon), some covered in trees, some bare. The land is dry, but not dead.

When Erin and I did our big bike tour in ’94, we decided that New Mexico and upstate New York were the prettiest states in the U.S. Part of the joy of New Mexico is how pristine it is. One evening during our bike tour as we rode through one of the poorest counties in the state, two different cars pulled up right next to us and drifted toward the shoulder, forcing us to stop or be run off the road. Just as we’d decided these were the meanest people in the West, a guy came running out of a little adobe house near the road and yelled for us to stop. He was incredibly friendly and invited us to stay the night at his place. After some hesitation, we accepted. In addition to having a great dinner (homemade tamales!) and a nice sleep, we learned that the people in that area all spoke an ancient 16th-century Spanish and were hostile to outsiders as a way of preserving their land. Our new friends said that when developers, usually from Texas, arrived to scope the place out, they simply disappeared. Word got around, and outsiders have learned to stay away. Of course I have no way to validate this story, but the fact remains this is a gorgeous area that hasn’t given way to tourists or retirees.

Situation room – part two

If you were bothered by situation room part one above, you should just stop reading right now.

It’s tempting, after a few days on the train, to think I’m getting the hang of things. For example, I passed up the temptation to wait until the train stopped to take a shower; the porter had warned that at these stops the water gets disconnected, so you can end up fully lathered with no water to rinse with. (Showering in motion is a bit of a trick, too, as the train swings around and you don’t have much to grab onto. And I had a devil of a time getting the water back on after lathering, as the knob was hard to turn and my soapy hands couldn’t grip it hard enough.) I also learned to use the toilet before running my kids and myself through our dental regimen, because the hyperactive faucet turns the counter-top into a big pool that can dump water on you when the train jerks.

Of course, such confidence is the stuff of fools—there’s always an unforeseen cataclysm waiting in the wings. In my case it was using the toilet at a station stop. I’d finished up and had only to flush when suddenly the power went out. This is actually pretty common at the longer stops and I’m sure there’s a good reason for it. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the toilet wouldn’t flush without electricity! I tried to wait it out, but I just couldn’t take that tiny, hot, stuffy restroom anymore. And yet, I couldn’t imagine leaving the un-flushed toilet for the next guy—I’d done some serious damage in there. I decided to wait just outside the door, but first I headed down the short hallway to my room to grab my wallet—the original point of this trip downstairs. (In the midst of my toilet situation, my family was waiting for me up in the dining car.)

Alas, on my way back to the restroom, I was waylaid by the friendly couple in the next sleeping room. I couldn’t exactly beg off—what would I tell them? “Sorry, I can’t dally—I’m babysitting an un-flushed toilet down there.” So I had a very pleasant conversation throughout which I was totally distracted. The woman had never been outside of Indiana before this trip, and now they’d been out for forty days. Any minute now somebody could board the train and take a quick left into that tiny, stinking restroom vestibule. The man was impressed at my kids’ vocabularies. A mere ten feet away an act of unintentional vandalism was underway. The couple was retired and loving it. Any second I might be running down the hallway, everything in super-slo-mo, my voice drawn out into a long, low drone: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Suddenly, deus ex machina: the lights snapped back on, the A/C whirred back to life, and there was a pause in the conversation. I quickly said, “Well, I’d better join the family up in the dining car. Nice to meet you!” I dashed down to the toilet. Nobody beat me there. Whew!

Off the train

Now we’re in Flagstaff, Arizona (while our house is under constant police surveillance, even though it houses items of only sentimental value and no resale value, so don’t even bother burglarizing the place). We’re in a nice bed & breakfast. It’s nice to have a place to spread out all our clothes and such, so we can sort them by totally filthy versus only lightly worn, and figure out which snacks have botulism versus a mere reek. Flagstaff strikes us as a really cool town; the climate, people, and general feel remind me of Boulder . Check out this sign I saw in a sandwich shop:

It was a timely sentiment, because after having a picnic and some run-around time at a little park, we went on a family hike that became a bit of an ordeal. We were searching for the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered. The kids’ bedtime is too early for Lowell’s telescopes at this time of year, but at least we could have checked out their sweet interferometer during the day. We were told the observatory was reachable by this trail, but we might as well have tried to find Pluto. Tall ponderosa pines prevented us from seeing what lay ahead, so it was an act of faith to keep on hiking. At one point we split up and Alexa and I forged ahead; this was of course a very bad idea. “The Blair Witch Project” came to mind, and eventually we were looking for hikers to eat. Alexa asked if she could drink from the muddy puddles alongside the trail. Oddly, there was nary a soul up there. By the time Alexa and I gave up, made our way back down the trail, reunited with Erin and Lindsay, and made it back to the B&B, our hike had lasted well over three hours.

Today we get back on the train and continue our journey. Now it’s time for breakfast, luggage sorting, and such; maybe I’ll even have time to upload this post. There may or may not be another train trip installment, depending on how remarkable the rest of our journey proves to be. Thanks for tuning in!

dana albert blog

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Train Trip - Part Two

NOTE: this post is rated PG-13 for an instance of mild strong language.


If you feel you need an introduction, perhaps you haven’t read my previous post, “Train Trip – Part 1.” Or perhaps you don’t need this introduction at all, and yet here it is, like that weird snub-nosed hair dryer provided in a hotel room, or those gross individually-wrapped toothpaste-flavored candies in the glass bowl at an otherwise great restaurant. (This introduction exists for the sake of form; I try for a certain consistency with these posts, having not yet read enough Donald Barthelme to develop better habits.) Suffice to say I’m in a huge rush, writing a bit here in the observation lounge before the rest of the family wakes up. Thus, there may not be any structure to this post, and it may run a bit long. The Times regrets—no, wait, the Times breathes a huge sigh of relief—that it isn’t paying me by the word, nor, in fact, at all.

Train architecture

I’m in the observation lounge, looking out the huge window at, uh, Kansas I think. It’s easy to get disoriented when you wake up on a train that’s been cruising along at 70 mph all night. To my left is the bar. So far on this trip there has been no activity at the bar: no drinks served, no bartender, no booze inventory. Just a little sink and the kind of faucet where you push the glass against a half-ring, and two small fridges built into the cabinetry. I picture a time, back when Americans drank cocktails, when this bar would have been the nerve center of the entire observation car: guys with narrow neckties and short haircuts drinking highballs. You can still get beer on the train, but it’s downstairs in the cheerless little snack bar among the Doritos and refrigerated box sandwiches. (Of course, this car is gorgeous, and has no need for a two-drink minimum.)

I’ve often filled our water bottles here at this abandoned bar, reaching over its low partition, feeling vaguely subversive. If anybody gives me a hard time about this it’ll be the Scoutmaster to my right, who is presiding over six or eight Boy Scouts on this train. The other day this Scoutmaster scowled at me hard for no apparent reason, though I’ve decided the scowl might just be his natural expression. He doesn’t look happy at all, though perhaps I wouldn’t be either if I had to wear a full Boy Scout uniform in public throughout my vacation.

Anyhow, yesterday evening I saw somebody manning the bar for the first time, but it was a college-age girl, standing behind the partition working on her laptop PC. I couldn’t figure out why she chose that area, having to stand and risking the wrath of the Scoutmaster, when there were seats available. (She wasn’t serving drinks, needless to say.) This morning the mystery is solved: she was there for the electrical outlet. This train, though it looks a lot like the one we took east toward Chicago, is evidently a bit older and doesn’t have electrical jacks running along the walls. The other one had plenty of them (each labeled “120 Volts” since probably half the passengers on these trains are foreigners). The only electrical outlet in the whole car is that one at the bar. I’ve got my laptop cord snaked through there and hope to have my battery back to 100% before the Scoutmaster notices.

Situation room

Downstairs from the observation lounge is the snack bar and a restroom that mainly serves the coach passengers. This restroom is certainly harder-used than the ones in the sleeper cars. We only use it when the kids need a restroom during our meal, as it’s quicker to get here via the observation lounge than to go back through the sleeper cars. During one meal I stood outside the restroom, chaperoning Alexa, when another passenger (ball cap, sleeveless t-shirt, slack jaw, paunch) went right by me toward it. It didn’t occur to him that I was in line. I guess he thought I just preferred standing over sitting, and preferred restroom-perfumed air to fresh. I said, “Hey, dumbass, you think I’m just standing here for my health?”

No, of course I didn’t really say that. I said, “There’s someone in there.” He replied, “Both of ‘em?” and continued down the short dead-end hallway. There is of course only one restroom there. I replied, “Oh, I didn’t know there was a second one.” When the guy discovered there was only one restroom, he said, “Oh, my goodness, right you are! I’ll line up behind you like any reasonable person.” No, of course he didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything: he just tried the latch on the one restroom, where Alexa was. I guess he figured I was lying about the restroom being occupied, or was somehow mistaken, or perhaps he thought that tiny door would miraculously open out into a giant multi-stall men’s room. Alexa called out, “Excuse me, I’m in here.” The guy came back out past me, mouth-breathing, his brain unable (through overexertion or sheer paralysis) to contrive a facial expression. This is the beauty of a train: aren’t you glad this idiot isn’t on the highway instead, buzzing along at 80 in his Ford Expedition, changing lanes without checking his blind spot?

Off the train

Last Thursday we got off the train in Chicago. It had been a great three days but the kids were starting to become unstable, in the way that a nuclear reactor sometimes does. Their roughhousing was becoming more violent and unstructured, approaching that of two little boys (which of course I have no stomach for). My attempts to calm my daughters down were failing. I put a stack of pillows between them; these became weapons. I felt my authority slipping away: the kids would desist for only moments before gradually going at each other again. If Joan Didion had been trapped in our little sleeping car, she’d have said, “The center cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”

The train was only about four hours late, which wasn’t bad at all over such a long distance, with a freight train derailment along the line. (Amtrak pays the freight companies to use their tracks.) Our checked bag, however, took another forty-five minutes to reach us. It’s hard to know, in a train station you’ve never set foot in, that you’re in the right place, that there isn’t an evil twin baggage claim area that actually has your stuff. There were no announcements of any kind concerning any of this, and when I asked somebody in an Amtrak uniform what was up, he said, “Oh, it’s on the way. They had to wake up baggage.”

We spent the night in Chicago (our hotel, which we’d paid for in advance, was overbooked and they sent us down to a “sister property” and refunded our money!) and we spent the next morning recombobulating ourselves. Then we had lunch at an Italian place called Volare. Glorious! Look at this pappardelle alla Bolognese I had:

As I cropped the photo just now, this big black woman passing behind me must have looked over my shoulder because she said, “Mm-mmm-mmh.” And she’s right.

It was hot and sunny and humid in Chicago. We found a little pocket park with a fountain. The kids were instructed not to get wet. They got drenched. Erin said, “I can’t believe they got wet!” I replied, “I can’t believe you can’t believe they got wet!”

There’s a big park in Chicago next to the naval pier, and a nice stretch of beach. The kids wrestled on the grass for at least an hour. Instead of running all over Chicago (in the heat and humidity) and trying to tick off items on a metaphorical tourist’s checklist, we just spent the afternoon at this park relaxing.

Unreasonably close to the departure of our next train—which would take us a short distance up to Michigan to visit some friends—we suddenly became ambitious and headed to the John Hancock building. It’s not as tall as the Tower Formerly Known As Sears but has the best view in the city, according to our waiter at Volare. To be precise, he recommended the view from the women’s bathroom in the 96th floor lounge. The elevator made all our ears pop. Here’s the view Erin and the girls got to see:


There is no window at all in the men’s room of the 96th floor lounge.

It was a bit tight making our train to Michigan. I have a vivid memory of my kids sprinting down the platform ahead of Erin and me, the train seething and groaning next to us.

Michigan was excellent. Among other attractions, there is a gorgeous beach near New Buffalo:

After a lovely few days with our friends we headed back to Chicago, where we locked up our luggage in the baggage claim room at the station. This took twenty-five minutes because it involved a fingerprint reader that wasn’t working. The attendant got it basically working and I managed to cram our carry-on bags in the locker. On the way to checking our last bag I realized I’d locked up our tickets with the carry-ons. I went back, released our baggage, checked out the locker again—only it assigned me a different one so I had to move everything—and then when we checked that last bag we finally learned the location of the mythic passenger lounge where they’ll hold your bags for free. (I’ll be making a voodoo doll of the person at the information desk who played dumb about this lounge and directed us to the lockers.) By now we’d wasted not only $12 but too much time to go up in the Tower Formerly Known As Sears. Here’s an exterior shot, anyway:

We still had time to head over to Giordano’s for real Chicago-style pizza. (Doubtless a local would contest the “real” label, since Giordano’s is a chain, but so is Uno, and we have no guide, so what could we do?) Regardless, it was tasty:

(Note, in that photo, how assiduously Lindsay is wiping salad dressing off her plate so as not to taint her pristine pizza.) In case you’re wondering how this ‘za compares to other offerings, it’s quite similar to Zachary’s in Berkeley, whereas Uno (the original one) is more similar to Little Star in San Francisco. Uno and Little Star are single-crust pies with a cornmeal crust. Giordano’s and Zach’s are double-crust pizzas. Overall, I found Giordano slightly inferior to Zach’s: the sauce isn’t as bright or zesty. (Uno outside of Chicago, meanwhile, is greasy in a Pizza Hut way, though I still like it a lot.)

We have many dozens of itchy souvenirs from Michigan: during movie night, outdoors near the swimming pool, we were absolutely feasted upon by mosquitoes, despite taking every precaution. We’d worn socks, shoes, long pants, long-sleeved shorts, bug spray that smelled like Thai food, and even these Lawrence of Arabia hats, provided by our hosts, that covered our necks—but all to no avail. I slaughtered a good many mosquitoes, but clearly not enough. My entire back is a night sky of welts—you could make out any number of constellations. At least the bites are small (perhaps due to the allergy shots I get?) compared to that of our host, whose back was a raised topographical map of mountainous welts. Erin got it really bad, too, on her legs: evidently those insect bastards could bite right through her pants. Alexa has one on her face and another on her neck, poor kid. Next time it’s jeans and a denim jacket, kitchen gloves, and rubber waders.


During dinner the other night, we crossed over the Mississippi River. It was all but unmistakable given its vast size, but since the waitress was right there we asked her if it was indeed the Mississippi. She glanced out the window as if she’d never seen the river before, and said she really didn’t know. As she turned to head to the kitchen area, I said to Erin and the kids, “I did hear one guy say that this was the largest body of water west or east of the Mississippi.” The waitress turned back and said, “Is that right?” (This is what we in the amateur comedy industry refer to as “collateral damage.”)

Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa offer multiple—no, countless—no, almost continuous—opportunities to look at cornfields flying by.

If a Martian landed on this train and looked out the window for a few days, he would probably conclude that corn is the main thing we humans eat. And yet all these cornfields aren’t abounding with the sweet corn that humans can eat; it’s all for cattle. So the question is, where is all this cattle? In feed lots, of course, and though rolling by a feed lot or two would be educational for the kids, I’m just as glad they’re not on display here.

We also pass by fields of soy, though I somehow missed my opportunity to photograph them. At least the kids got to see them. In their bedroom at home is a U.S. map showing (via cartoonish drawings) the main industries and exports of each state. Northern California has a picture of a semiconductor, which my kids easily recognized. Around Iowa in the map is a little bag labeled “soy.” Soybeans are among our country’s largest exports but nobody knows what the plants look like. For the record, they’re darker green and lower than cornstalks, and leafier. Not as characteristic as the cornstalks—or is it just that they’re not as ubiquitous here?

This isn’t to say the scenery is boring. The rows of manicured crops create nice optical effects if you blur then focus your eyes. The abundance is kind of soothing. Meanwhile, I get to watch freight trains, which pass by regularly. The sheer range of vintages and styles of these trains never ceases to fascinate me. Watching them at stations is the best way: when they come by, you can feel the vibration in your feet and the wind coming off of them. They are serious industrial beasts. Best of all, when I'm traveling by train I don’t have to look at automobiles. In general, I hate cars. If you asked me to rate each car we saw as we drove along an American highway, I’d say, “Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly, passable, ugly, ugly, hideous, ugly, ugly, okay, ugly, ugly, passable.” And there are too many lousy drivers on the road to give me complete peace on road trips. The train is really the better way to go.

Check back soon for Train Trip Part 3 – Dining Car Ewok Meatloaf Special!

dana albert blog