Thursday, October 25, 2007

What I Was Missing

I can hardly stand this! There are likely only a few travel experiences so amazing as traveling by train through the Pacific Northwest at the peak of Fall. I'm in awe. It's unbelievable!

There goes another river. We crossed over an old school truss bridge. Mountains off to the left. No wait--mountains off to the right. Wait, now it's the waters of Puget Sound. The sun is poking through the mildly cloudy skies to light them up like aerial fire. Now we're traveling through a valley--the very bottom--along a creek filled with yellow leaves and lily pads. We just crossed the creek. Now it's on the right. Evergreen trees mix in with the fall colors on the far bank. Off to the left again, we have rolling mountains of green, gold and bright red. This next hill is a brilliant green pasture with the perfectly quaint little farmhouse on top, surrounded by fence and horses. A little farther along is a run down old barn. It's perfect for this setting. The distant mountains off to the right make a silhouette against the now explosive sun-cloud canvas. Now they're all gone. I can't see a single thing. But the hum and clatter of the train's motion is much stronger. We're in a tunnel and the world is taken away in a blink. Then bright light, brilliant yellows and green pines again. A voice comes over the line, “Ladies and Gentlemen, as we rocket out of the Rocky Point Tunnel, I'm pleased to announce our arrival into Kelso/Longview. For those of you leaving us here, we'll open the doors between cars number 1 & 2 and cars number 5 & 6.” With a graceful deceleration and stop along with an audible sigh from brakes, the train comes to a total stop. There's not a single sound. It is deadly quiet. Less than a minute passes. If you weren't looking out the window, you wouldn't even know we started moving again. It is still silent. A train whistle. Clack... ... Clack... ... Clack...clack... ... Clack...clack... ClaClack... ClaClack... Clack-A-Clack... Clack-A-Clack... We're moving again.

Inside the train car, I'm sprawled across four seats. They're in pairs facing each other with a table in between. Spanning across the entire table are my travel amenities: my newly acquired laptop, day bag, half a dozen other electronic gadgets and an empty Black Butte Porter beer bottle I bought (when it still had beer in it) from the bistro car. They don't call it a “dining car”. The “in-flight” movie just ended. Evan Almighty (seen it). I might not even realize I wasn't sitting in my own living room if it weren't for the motion of the picture windows on all sides (now showcasing a 150 foot shear rock cliff on the left and a golden sunset over a creek and wetlands to the right). We just crossed over another creek atop another historic train truss bridge.

The train is due in to Portland in an hour and I can't tell you how sad that makes me. How unusual it is to not want the journey to end! It's strange to think that what I thought would be only an interlude in my travel experiences has proven to be such a highlight. This is by far, the most pleasant trip I've had! I can't believe more people (in this country) don't ride trains! Of course, if they did, I would have to share my four-seater living room.

We're crossing a highway now. I can't help but look at the diamond headlights and ruby taillights with a bit of contempt. Do they know what they're missing? As they're running around from place to place, strapped in behind the wheel, I'm lounging with my feet up and shoes off. But then again, before this week, I knew little other than that. I never considered taking a train. Why would I? I had a car. I flew in airplanes. And I will do those again. But one thing won't happen again--I will never again sit behind the wheel at a train crossing, waiting impatiently, so I can get on my way without feeling at least a twinge of jealousy for the lucky travelers riding in style. And when I hear the sound of that train whistle through the air, it will take me back to these fond Fall days of tracking across the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rails Over Roads

The elegance of the rails is alive and well! I needed a ticket from Vancouver back to Seattle (on my way to Portland). It was about $3 more than a bus ticket and even though the train is only now pulling away from the station, it's been worth every penny.

There is a romantic allure to train travel that you simply don't have with plane, bus. or car travel. Maybe it's the bell I can still hear ringing; maybe it's the gentle sway of the double-decker car as it picks up speed; maybe it's the 25% occupancy leaving most seats empty for me to stretch out or the ~3 feet of legroom I have (no joke!); maybe it's the couple making out in front of me; or maybe it's the sun setting over the ocean shore where brilliant fall colored trees descend the mountains. Maybe it's all of this. But the experience as a whole is nearly enough to swear off plane travel entirely.

Ahh! There's the train whistle... And the familiar Ding Ding Ding Ding of the crossing signal as all the cars on the road stop for me. It is grand. It is magnanimous!

Here comes the ticket officer. I disappointed that he isn't wearing the funny little hat, but he's quirky and funny enough to make up for it. He says the customs officer will be through in an hour. Maybe he'll be the one pushing the perfectly-aisle-sized cart with beverage and pretzels. Or I suppose I could just walk to the dining car. There is no "Fasten Seat Belt" sign on a train.

Ahah! There's the conductor with the little hat. He seems to be just chatting with passengers. And that thunderous sound was a sister train going north on the adjacent track.

There's the whistle again. One positive side effect to travel by train is that, since you're still on the ground, you get to see a fair bit of the surroundings. We just drove (trained? rolled? tracked?) past the Paramount movie studio lots. Vancouver is known as Little Hollywood. Apparently, it is often much cheaper to film movies in Vancouver (before the dollar sank). "The Fantastic Four" was largely filmed here. I even ran across a film crew with their cranes and cameras and trailers while walking the streets of Vancouver's Gastown.

The only other time I've covered so many kilometers by rail was in Eastern Europe. This experience is much different here--it's North Americanized. Everyone has their own luxurious separate spaces, all facing forwards. In Eastern Europe, the train cars had separate little cabins with six seats each--three facing forward, three backward. So you're staring someone in the eyes the whole ride. There were no arm rests and chances were good that you would have the head of the smelly Russian next to you in your lap after twenty minutes.

Getting up for a stroll yielded some fine results. The dining car had good food for rather little money. People were sprawled out on the U shaped booths on each side of the car, taking advantage of the lack of passengers. Downstairs, the bathrooms were spacious and cleverly laid out. The drinking fountain came with cups. It's a smart little world in here.

Well, after the most enjoyable transit experience of my life, We roll into the station. I'm reminded a bygone era of turn-of-the-century elegance as the tracks back into the ornate historic station. The heyday of the railway has seen its end, but the end of the line on this rail trip has me on track for its elegance again soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Opportunity Cost

Today takes me back to Seattle for a few days. It might be a chance to do, see or say the things I didn't while there before. I don't think there is ever really enough time. Even this time, I'll only be there a few days as a stopping point on my way to Portland. It's always a trade-off. Time spent in one place is time unavailable for another. Nonetheless, it's back into the States for me.
Men work out their souls by strange rules, which other men, who have not journeyed into far countries, cannot come to understand.
- Jack London

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Vancouver in Motion

This is a beautiful series of time lapse videos taken of Vancouver (not by me). They show the cityscape well. Notice how high in the sky the sun doesn't go.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Things Canadian...

...intersections. (Lights for one street, stop signs for the other...?)

...native art.

...grafiti. (Look closely. Those are smart grafiti artists.)

...political party headquarters.


...Looney Dollar.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Intermediate Impressions: Vancouver

When I first pulled in to Vancouver on that rainy evening and looked out over the city, I was struck by a very different looking skyline. I had heard that Vancouver was a very modern city and expected something like a small New York. But I was disappointed. The skyline looked... wrong. I've since figured it out. Unlike most American, or even European skylines, the Vancouver skyline is dominated by residential high rises. So it has a very different feel to it. Combine that with the local ordinance limiting the height of downtown skyscrapers to protect the view of yonder mountains, and it makes for an unexpected cityscape.

Adding to the unexpectedness of Vancouver's appearance, but in an entirely pleasant way, is the natural beauty of this city. (Seattle shares this in common.) Vancouver is surrounded by mountains in the distance, flanked with trees in the nearness, and boasts beaches and bays in between. Parks are everywhere--large parks, right by/in downtown (which is impressive given the ridiculous real estate prices here). Stanley Park is even Vancouver's biggest attraction.

The parks are one obvious example of Vancouver being a pedestrian oriented city. Not being in the US, they don't suffer the affliction here of assuming everyone has a car and wants to drive it everywhere they go. So Vancouver is very much designed around the walking person. Many streets (outside of downtown) only fit one car, after the nearby residents park on the street, because Canadian studies have shown that pedestrians feel better about crossing streets below a certain width. They also don't like to cross driveways, so you won't find any here.

Since they're not driving, you won't find any Drive-Thrus, either. All the shops a neighborhood needs--because each neighborhood has its own local everything--are storefronts along the commercial district. They don't quite have the charm of European shoppes, but are leaps and bounds beyond the American plague of strip malls.

What minimal driving there is brings with it some interesting quirks. First of all, gas only costs about a dollar. But, mind you, that's a Canadian Dollar (which I can't believe is worth more than the US Dollar, about $1.03!), and it's buying only a litre. Do the math. It hurts.

The interplay between pedestrian and automobile is also curious for Americans. For one, pedestrians will jump right out in front of oncoming traffic. What's even stranger is that the cars always stop, let them cross and carry on like it's normal... because it is. If a driver is going through a traffic light, he or she is likely to find it more than just green, but blinking green. In other parts of Canada, this means a protected turn signal, but here in Vancouver it means that the light is pedestrian controlled and at any moment, you may have a pedestrian changing the light to "amber" before you must stop at a red light to let them cross.

Whether pedestrian or behind the wheel, there is really no guarantee what the Vancouverite will look like. This must be one of the most heterogeneous populations I've seen. The city is at least half filled with non-Caucasian Canadians, most of whom are Asian. Thus, Vancouver boasts the third largest Chinatown in North America, and arguably, the most authentic.

Regardless of their ethnicity, Vancouverites currently all share a very smelly problem: the garbage service for the city has been on strike for months. Consequently, since they're such nice Canadians, many other public services have gone on strike in sympathy. So the libraries are closed and many other city offices. But cross your fingers, because this week's vote may bring the long strike to a much anticipated end.

As a final thought, among the charming peculiarities that distinguish this nearby neighbour sharply from her southern counterparts, I have to say I particularly miss American bookstores. In Vancouver, they don't put chairs in their bookstores. Can you believe it? They expect you to come in, buy your book, and leave. Even if there's a Starbucks attached (yes, they're en force here!), the signs and scanners prevent you taking an unpurchased book to your table as you sip a latte. So while huddled on the floor of the "Cultural Studies" isle, I stumbled upon the insightful commentary below from a new book about the TV show, "The Simpsons." Coincedentally, the author makes deliberate note of the show's Canadian writers along with some generally insightful comments:

"I have to say that Canadians tend to be a good deal more introspective and self-effacing than Americans, much slower than their southern neighbors to celebrate their triumphs and much quicker to expose their flaws. This is a disposition, note, that is ripe for the development of satire. Another fundamental difference is that many Americans believe--are in fact raised to believe--that everyone else in the world lives like they do, or else wants to live like they do, and that the American way of life is compelling to pretty much everyone. Whereas Canadians are raised with the absolute certainty that not even their closest neighbours live like they do, nor want to, and that their way of life is not even particularly compelling to those neighbours. America's enormous global influence--politically and economically as well as culturally--and Canada's comparative invisibility confirm these beliefs to some degree. America sees itself everywhere, Canada almost nowhere. The former thus develops a highly insular and inwardly focused culture, the latter an obsessively outward-looking culture. And the place Canadians most often gaze out upon is their big, brash next-door neighbour. This has provided Canada with a point of view utterly unique in the world: Canadians are by nature and circumstance experts in American studies, nearly as well versed as Americans themselves in the society and culture of the United States, able to identify every cultural referent, able indeed to pass for Americans--to produce pop culture that an American audience frequently mistakes for its own. Canadians almost instinctively get American culture, but at the same time they are profoundly aware that they are not entirely of it. And this allows Canadians to be critical of it with a degree of detachment impossible for an American, even as their privileged point of view ensures that their criticisms ring true."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

I know it's October, but that's how they do things here in Canada. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, so we had the traditional Thanksgiving feast. I was invited by friends of a friend and it was a ball! It was just like in "the States," except there were no Pilgrims and I'm told you can't have a Thanksgiving meal here without Brussel Sprouts--which is really too bad, because I think their absence would have been the only way to enhanced the meal. Turkey, stuffing, potatos, rolls, squash, green beans, cranberry sauce, mulled wine, hot apple pie--the works. So I'll tell you this, the way to go would be to live by the border so you can be here in October and the States in November. There's a lot of fine food to be had with friends in Vancouver. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Oh, Canada!

Growing up in Michigan, I've been to Canada at least a hundred times. So it doesn't really seem like going to a foreign country. But it's a much different part of Canada, and as of last week, you need your passport to cross the border, so eat it. I'm going to Canada. I'm waiting in a bus station right now for my friend Bert, who is kind enough to drop me off in Vancouver, British Columbia, CANADA, "on his way" home to north Washington. Seattle is a gem for sure, and I may stop back in there in a couple weeks, but for now, I'm singing: "Oh, Canada! My home and native land..." (not really)
Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity. They seem more afraid of life than death.
- James F. Byrnes

Monday, October 1, 2007

No One Travels Alone: Steven

"Have a seat." Steven says. "We should pray here."

"What do you pray for?" I asked.

"I pray that I might grow roots here."

I found a mildly comfortable tree root to sit against, but got distracted by the mushy earth around it.

"Be careful," Steven warned, "that's someone's roots there." He laughed.

Steven is from Belgium. If they still had hippies, he would be one. Steven found his house on Google Earth last night and saw his town from the air for the first time. He arrived in the United States a little while back on the East Coast. Then he hitchhiked across Canada before descending into Seattle. I met him because we are staying with the same people.

"Do you want a beer?" Steven asks swinging his arm my direction.

"It's nine o'clock in the morning."

"Oh. Ok."

I told Steven that I planned to come out to Snoqualmie Falls today. "Can I come?" he asked. So I drove while he crocheted and we both listened to Regina Spektor.

Steven makes hats. It's a new skill he learned in Victoria. He told me that he left many good friends in Victoria. He was only there a few days. He must make friends quickly--he's fairly disarming. I think it's the accent. He speaks like he lives: slowly and with distinction--and always with a Belgian twist.

"I loved a girl there," he told me, not referring to sex. "I loved several. It's okay to love people you know. And when you do, you find that you love each of them differently. And those loves add something to your life to make something quite beautiful. ...I think people don't love enough."

We were on our way back up from the falls basin when Steven wandered off the path without warning.

"It's beautiful," he said. Then after a moment, asked, "Where are you going next?"

"I don't know. I suppose back to Seattle."

"Why are you in such a hurry? Why not sit here in nature and relax a while?"

After a pensive pause, I agreed. We walked further off the path into a glen. I find a fallen tree to sit on and Steven lays down on a muddy hillside. The occassional tourist that walks by stops to ask if he's ok. He smirks every time.

"Dude, are you alright?" She was right next to him and her volume didn't match the serenity of the scene.

"Yeah," he replies very quietly.

"What are you doing?" a little softer this time.

"I'm watching the trees."

"What do you see up there?" and the woman lays down in the dirt next to him, her friend frozen and staring a few feet away. After a short moment, the woman says, "He knows what's going on! This guy understands what it's all about!" She speaks with mock religious conviction before standing up and walking away, laughing.

Come rain or shine?

What's wrong with this city?!? See this picture? That's looking straight up from the city street on which I'm walking. It's raining. Does that look like it should be raining to you? Welcome to Seattle. (But I still like the rain.)

Incedentally, I've been told that while it rains all the time, it almost never snows here. I didn't expect that. It has to do with the near-sea level elevation and the way the jetstream brings either cold, dry air from Canada/Alaska or warm wet air from the south Pacific. But the end result: No snow, more rain.