AMTRAK 2002 California Zephyr/Empire Builder/Coast Starlight And Side Trips
July 2002 Section 1 of 3
CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR TO CHICAGO
The waiting area inside Omaha's Amtrak station is little bigger than the average living room. About a half dozen passengers sat watching the sunrise edition of the local news. Outside, the faintest tinge of blue edged over the horizon, partially erasing the night. The train was late, as usual. The California Zephyr, one of America's great trains for decades, was rarely on time.
By the time I'd finished off a cup of hot tea, dawn had arrived and the train still had not. Yoli sat patiently reading an autobiography by Michael J. Fox while I strolled outside the tiny station, set barely a hundred yards from the now-dilapidated Burlington Station. Throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century, it had been an elegant lady, a hub of society with dozens of trains passing through daily, all criss-crossing the nation. Now it was uninhabitable, in ruins, a haunting reminder of a time when the world was a larger but less complex place. I could easily imagine those now-forgotten decades, when scores of people regularly crowded into the cavernous station, excited to board a train that would magically whisk them to their destinations. In those days, getting there was half the fun. Businessmen caught the Union Pacific to Chicago, families took the Burlington Northern to Saint Louis or Kansas City, and Middle-aged couples set off to see relatives in Denver, all experiencing the keen anticipation that comes with riding the rails. The trip meant enjoying a fine meal in the dining car, or perhaps a game of canasta (for the gentlemen in their suits) in the club car. Or if you were fortunate enough to be traveling overnight, a curtained-off berth made up by the conductor before bedtime.
My mind withdrew from the mammoth corpse of Burlington station and returned to the present with the startling announcement of the imminent arrival of the Zephyr, made over the loudspeaker. I waited until I could see the Amtrak engine gliding slowly around the bend towards the station.Perhaps it lacked the grandeur of former days, but the train was still impressive as it approached the station. I re-entered the station, where over a dozen passengers-dressed down, as it were-- now stood waiting by the door. A uniformed man walked around looking at our tickets before we were allowed to exit.
Yoli and I were traveling coach to Chicago since the trip would be only ten hours. After we strolled up to one of the coaches, a conductor glanced at our boarding passes and gave us our seat numbers. We entered the car, dragged our baggage up a cramped set upstairs and found our seats. It was gratifying to find that regular coach seats were superior to first-class seats on an airliner. As the train pulled out and passed through the forest south of downtown Omaha, along the Missouri river, we settled down in the lounge car.
Amtrak's observation lounge cars reveal the world to you. Strung along each side are seats facing large floor-to-ceiling windows. On the lower level, there is a snack bar as well as several tables. For ten hours, we either sat looking out the windows at the pretty scenery and small towns through which we passed, or rested back in our coach seats. Once we sipped tea and snacked down in the lower level at a table. Perhaps one of happiest diversions while traveling by train is a trip to the diner. Our waiter was a tall black gentleman who reminded me of the actor Scatman Crothers.
"We sit two by two," he announced to us in a loud but cheerful voice, showing us the table near the end of the car. Amtrak has a policy of sitting four people together at one table, which serves as an excellent way of meeting other passengers. I wasn't sure, however, whether Yoli and I were to sit next to each other or across from each other.
"You want me to sit next to her?" I asked.
"Unless you want me to," he boomed with a chuckling voice. "I don't mind."
A word about the Amtrak menu: it doesn't vary from train to train anymore, but is sadly standardized throughout the US. The good news is that the breakfast and dinners are pretty good, with only lunch leaving something to be desired. Anyway, we didn't eat lunch since breakfast had been enough.
The Chicago skies were gray and dismal when the Zephyr pulled into downtown Chicago's glorious Union Station, a wonderful working version of Omaha's dead concrete hulk. We took a $6 taxi ride to the Cass Hotel, just off Michigan Avenue. The first thing we did, despite the gray and chilly summer day, was to walk down to the Navy Pier, a collection of shops, restaurants and "things to do" along the pier jetting out into the expanse of Lake Michigan. We snacked, peeked into shops, and shivered with the gusts of chilled lake wind until we caught the free shuttle downtown. In the evening, along State street, we stopped in a homey looking café for some tasty homemade soup.
During our time in Chicago we enjoyed simply walking around the downtown area with its brilliantly designed skyscrapers. We walked through Grant Park, easily finding Buckingham Fountain, one of America's finest, with great plumes of water arching upwards and out over the stone lions standing guard. We ate ice cream, strolled along the lake, had lunch at Berghoff's-a fine German restaurant with a grand, dimly lit interior and dark oak furniture-and bought a couple disposable Kodak cameras at Walgreens. Yoli had mistakenly left her camera behind in Omaha We visited the Museum of Broadcasting, seeing Fibber McGee's closet and Jack Benny's vault, complete with sound effects, and then strolled easily through the seemingly endless rooms of the Art Institute, where one could spend a week inspecting the work of the masters.
Our second day in the city, we took a city bus down to the Museum of Science and Industry, famous for its exhibits such as the only German U-boat captured by the United States Navy, a replica of a coal mine, farm exhibits (which we happily bypassed), and hundreds of little gadgets and educational items that parents dragged their kids to see.
In the afternoon, we stood in line for nearly an hour waiting to take the elevator up to the observation deck of the Sears Tower. The only thing I hated about it was the sickeningly sweet movie about Chicago and the tower's construction that an audience of fifty or so was forced to endure before being allowed to ascend. But the views are impressive; on a clear day, you can see for fifty miles, four states. Today it was pretty clear. In the evening, we took the "EL" (Chicagoan's beloved nick name for the elevated train) down to the near south side, not a place I'd want to be found late at night wandering around. However, the short stroll from the metro station to Tommy Gunn's Garage was safe enough.
Tommy's was a 1929 speakeasy, a gangster hangout where the booze flowed with the blood during those crazy days of Prohibition, the decade where America slid into schizophrenia.
Crossing the parking lot, a "gangster" cradling a machine gun asked us for the password. "Jake sent us," I said coolly, having been given the password two months earlier. Inside, the joint was dimly lit, and waiters and waitresses decked out in 20's dress were putting the finishing touches on the twenty tables facing a small stage. We were led to a two-person table directly in front of the stage. It pays to book early!
This was interactive dinner theater at its finest: the wait staff doubled as the entertainment, dancing and singing up a storm while getting the audience involved with comedy sketches. The emcee, a blondish man in his late thirties, was "Jake", the classic Al Capone type with a handsome mug and pinstriped suit to go with it. He had warned us from the onset about the risk of discovery by "da coppers."
"Ya see dat red light," he said, pointing to a light fixture by the door, "Dats gonna go off if our lookout sees any coppers." On cue, beams of red shafts circled the dark room. "If any coppers do make it in here," he added with a conspiratorial grin, "We's gonna say dat were holdin' a revival, so ya all practice sayin' 'Hallelujah!'"
Caught up in the enthusiasm, we all chorused a hardy "Hallelujah!"
The show lasted for a couple hours. Our waitress turned out to possess a magical voice and considerable talents as a dancer and comedian, along with the others who cajoled audience members onto the stage where they were given roles to play in a "mini play". A humorous moment was when a sixty-something woman, playing the legendary Mae West, strode sexily across the stage saying, "C'mon up to my room, big boy." A thin man playing Groucho Marx had been instructed to repeat the line, "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." But he sounded as much like Groucho Marx as would Sylvester Stallone, which added to the humor.
Suddenly, the red light activated, and the lookout came running in, saying breathlessly, "It's O'Riley, comin' around!" A few seconds later, a big "copper", played by a heavy-set waiter with one of the smiling baby faces, stormed into the restaurant.
"All right! All right! I know there's spirits bein' consumed on the premises!" He climbed the stage, and we remembered our parts. "Hallelujah!", we all cried, and a few hands waved in the air. The emcee grabbed a thick book, trying to convince the "officer" that it was the bible. After a hilarious scene where "O'Riley stuffed a bottle of whiskey in his uniform, he joined the emcee and others in a lively show tune. All in all, a fun, fun evening.
THE EMPIRE BUILDER TO SEATTLE
Our last day was relaxing. In the morning I had coffee and a roll at a corner café across from the Wrigley building, and then took an El ride down through some of the south side. I wanted to have a little taste of the hard up, the penniless. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because I lived in one of the richest cities on Earth. Dubai had virtually no poor. The Sheiks took care of all locals, the indigenous population, as it were. The other 80% of us had been brought to Dubai to work, and so were earning decent sums. Dubai's residential suburbs were mostly villas, often palatial. Those of us earning a paltry $55,000 a year lived in apartments, but the vast majority of apartment buildings in Dubai were pretty new, most offering such amenities as a pool, sauna, cable. But here on the south side I was able to see those who had close to nothing. The El passes alongside some seedy neighborhoods. I saw up close and somewhat personal the quintessential neighborhood mired in poverty: beat up cars rusting on the lawn, refuse in the streets, peeling houses, little black kids frolicking under a stream of water from the hose. I think most people don't want to see destitution; it scares them. Maybe I just wanted to remind myself that the whole world isn't made of shiny glass and steel and doesn't drive BMW's or have a maid.
In the early afternoon, we took a taxi to Union Station, located the First Class lounge, and waited to board the Empire Builder. Union Station does have a waiting area that is as it must have been decades before; it's a huge, open cathedral-like "room" reminiscent of a great rail age. Most Amtrak passengers wait, however, in a Spartan waiting area; for the first class passengers, there is the Metropolitan Lounge, very comfy with deep cushioned chairs and sofas, magazines to read, complimentary soft drinks and tea, and security for the baggage.
Despite the "doctor's sumptuous waiting room" feel of the Metropolitan Lounge, it retained an essence of rail travel with a video monitor announcing the departure and arrival times of many trains. Chicago is Amtrak's hub, so something was always a train in the station. A crowd of passengers disappeared from the lounge when boarding was called for the eastbound California Zephyr. Soon afterwards, an announcer gave the call to the Empire Builder's first class passengers to assemble. We collected our luggage from the security room and a uniformed man pointed to the exit we should take. We walked to track number seventeen, where we found the Empire Builder.
"Wow, it's so big," said Yoli. I could see that today's consist included three Genesis locomotives, two sleepers, four coaches, a diner, a lounge car, and a baggage car. Quite a long train! And it was to be our little world on the rails for the next 42 hours. At our sleeper car, a tall man in his fifties glanced at our tickets and said, "Right inside and down the hall, room #12."
Shortly after 2pm, on time, the train pulled out of downtown Chicago, and Yoli and I sat comfortably in our standard sleeper as we glided through the south side (hmmm, this looked familiar). Our car attendant, the man whom we'd seen initially, came around and introduced himself as Dennis ("Dennis the Menace," he said cheerfully), and soon after brought us some chilled soft drinks. That first afternoon, we sat for awhile in our sleeper, relishing our privacy in the tiny "room". I have to admit, it was cute and cozy. The suburbs of Chicago rolled by-or rather we rolled by the suburbs and out into America! As soon as the first freight train thundered by us with a shudder heading towards Chicago, I remembered the words to Arlo Guthrie's famous song, The City of New Orleans: "passin' trains that had no name, freight yards full of old black men, and the graveyards of rusted automobiles." All that we'd be seeing on this trip would be America's "back yard," and I found it compelling. None of the images would be "throw away" material, but would be examined and thought over. I could have stared out of the window for hours. The Empire Builder slices through pretty countryside heading north through Wisconsin. By late evening it chugs into the totally un-memorable station in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Actually not even in St. Paul, but some remote industrial area that by night looked totally uninviting.
Life on the Empire Builder was good for the two days we traveled out to Seattle. A long distance train trip is a journey in a self contained world, the illusion of safety and separateness suffusing throughout the train. The feeling for me is stronger at night, when the rhythm of life on board a train slows to a hum. The lights are dimmed in the lounge car after dark. I loved walking through the sleeper car, with tiny curtained-off cabins on either side and the glow of amber lighting bathing the car. The shaking and jolting of the train only underscored that we were on a journey, that which nomads have done for millennia. At night, after playing Boggle and drinking tea downstairs in the lounge car, we retired to our standard sleeper, which Dennis had made up: Twin berths, upper and lower, looked inviting. After changing (done in the berth since there is barely enough room for one skinny person to stand next to the berths when the door is shut and the curtains drawn), we shut off the light and sat together looking out the window.
I love this part of train travel. My mind turned back the clock to all those train rides I'd had in Europe over the years. I told Yoli about sharing a cabin with some Austrian guys and a fat American dude named George, whose full-time job back in Hawaii was growing Marijuana. George had been a kick, though. The Austrian guys loved him because he was buying the Greek beer for us all. And he had a great sense of humor, particularly when drunk. I also remembered a 72-hour train ride from St. Petersburg, Russia to Sofia, Bulgaria. I had run out of reading material after five or six hours, and there had been no lounge car. In fact, after the first day, there was no dining car. Fortunately, my Russian friends had packed half a roast chicken, a bunch of hard boiled eggs, and bread. Tea was plentiful and free on the train. On all those train rides, though, there'd be a time in the quiet of late night when I would stand at the window and stare out. The moon, if out, would cast its glow onto fields or forests or mountains. Every couple hours European trains stop at obscure (to me at least) villages.
The second day of travel on the Empire Builder-the journey from Minot North Dakota to the edge of Glacier National Park-is one of the longest train rides in the United States. Heading west, you have two time changes-to mountain time and then Pacific time. Plus, it being summer, it wouldn't get dark much before 10pm. We spent much of the day in either our sleeper or the lounge, with its expansive windows revealing ever changing scenery: the blue lakes dotting the undulating hills of North Dakota or the "big sky" over Montana. I read a bit, but couldn't get into the story with all the scenery. The funny thing is that the scenery that second day on the Empire Builder is rather tame. After all, it's North Dakota and eastern Montana. Pretty drab stuff to most folks. Yet most of the chairs in the lounge were taken, all kinds of passengers knitting or reading or chatting amiably, but every few minutes heads would look out at the passing farms or frontier towns or the ubiquitous grain elevators.
Our day was punctuated with meals in the dining car, mini social affairs in reality. Unless you're antisocial, this is where you make new acquaintances It's really quite hard to avoid since the dining car steward seats you with strangers. During our 42 hours on the Empire Builder, we had five or six meals, and consequently met quite a few people, usually couples over fifty, a few of whom were teachers. Rosalyn and Tom, from Hawaii, had spent their honeymoon-quite a few years back-at Glacier National Park, and were now returning after all these years. Then there was the professor of geography and his quiet wife with whom I had breakfast one morning. He was notable because he related a story of having taken a trip to Vienna for free, courtesy of friends. Another couple was Jeanne and John, who were on their way to Alaska. I remember them as progressives that were pro-Clinton (virtually everyone with whom I dined was anti-Bush).
We had a respite from the rumbling and constant movement of the train only when there was a lengthy halt for train servicing. At one station, under a hot sun blasting down enough heat to raise the temperature to 105 degrees, passengers headed to the red-brick station to either make calls, or go to the bathroom, or purchase some goodies (all of which you can actually do on the train, so it was nothing more than an excuse to stretch legs). One family kicked around a soccer ball. I strolled up and down the length of the Empire Builder, admiring the silver carriages with the red and blue stripes and the word "Superliner" splashed across the sides. I also chatted with Dennis about Amtrak's financial woes. "Management's a bunch of idiots," he stated. "And all them politicians in Washington just make it worse. Me? I've got three years til retirement."
"Where ya gonna retire?" I asked, to which he replied quite succinctly, "As far from any tracks as possible."
So time and the train rolled on. Time was meaningless. In the afternoon, we slowed to a crawl and then stopped. The heat wave oppressing the northern US had done some mischief to a rather crucial part of the engine, and we sat idle on the northern plains for a good two hours. It didn't really matter, except that there was a danger we would get into the mountains close to dusk, thus preventing the great views most of the passengers were looking forward to. Eventually, the Builder continued her journey west, and the first of the low mountains greeted Yoli and I-and a packed lounge car-an hour or so before dusk.
Sitting in a chair beside Yoli was an eleven-year-old boy named James who was quietly excited about his first big trip ever. His sister and parents had boarded in Milwaukee, a few hours after we had departed Chicago and were in a deluxe sleeper room just down the corridor from us. Their destination was Glacier National Park.
A cute kid with "cool" sunglasses, he chatted with Yoli and I towards dusk in the lounge car as we looked out the floor-to-ceiling picture windows at the first of the mountains. "So have you been to some other cities?" I asked him.
"No, I've never been west of the Mississippi. I've never been really anywhere outside Milwaukee," he stated. "This is my first big trip." James had a walkie-talkie with him which he used to communicate to his parents back in the sleeper car. Watching him, I could feel that sense of exhilaration that he must have been experiencing. After all, the "first big trip" a human being undertakes is like any other major "first", a first love, a first car. For me it had been a family trip to Florida, which had promised at the age of seven to be a period of adventure as our family crossed great mysterious expanses in a station wagon. James was lucky, I thought. I could sense his building anticipation as we neared to Glacier National Park.
The sun had receded behind the forested mountains, but it was still light when we were called to the dining car for our 9pm dinner. After our lunch with Jeanne and John, we'd occasionally chatted with them in the lounge car, and decided to share a meal in the dining car. The four of sat down, ordered, and gazed out the windows at a breathtaking sundown. A banner of reddish-orange unfurled across the sky as we chugged steadily up into the mountains. Distant peaks shone, and as the train curved, hugging the side of a mountain, we witnessed a valley open up. In the distance, the sun was only a ball of lucent crimson, half hidden. "Oh! Look at that! whispered Jeanne in a hushed voice usually reserved for cathedrals. We'd been enjoying our dinners and the company, but all eyes were drawn to the fire in the sky, the bursting of orange soon followed by a blush, fading to deep cherry over the forest of green pines.
We relished that sundown for hours afterwards, when we lay in our berths, letting the train's gentle rocks lull us into safe slumber.
We arrived in Seattle at 10:30am and grabbed a taxi outside the station. The driver whisked us through an empty Sunday-morning downtown. Neither downtown nor the gray chilly weather impressed me, and I was happy to reach the Travelodge, the point from which the Vancouver Shuttle Bus departs. We'd had reservations for the 2pm bus but were able to get on the 11am train, thankfully. Before we knew it, Seattle was behind us and Canada beckoned. The border stop was fairly painless, with passengers getting off the bus and standing in queue in a small unadorned building. Within a half hour the bus left, and within another five minutes, halted at a little country store in some pretty open countryside with fields, clusters of trees here and there, and the Rockies in the distance. The Campbell River Store is where our friend Shirley had said to call from, so we got off the bus, and I phoned from a booth. Shirley answered and said she'd be at the store within a few minutes. The sun was warm, we were standing in Canada, and it felt good to be off a train or bus, to be planted firmly on unmoving earth.
Shirley arrived and got out of a Nissan, saying, "Scott, you haven't changed a bit." We hadn't seen each other since our days teaching at ELS three years before. Shirley drove us to her house in the suburb of Surrey, where we had tea and caught up on the last few years. Her husband Bill, a retired Emirates Airline pilot, drove us around Surrey and White Rock, both lovely communities along a huge bay. After stopping for ice cream, we headed back to their place for dinner.
The next morning, Shirley dropped us at the bus stop so we could head into Vancouver, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, by anyone's standards. A large bay flows into a broad blue river that flows through the heart of the city. Along the waterfront stand a couple dozen aqua-green skyscrapers, a testament to the designers who wished to meld the environment with civilization. Downtown proper was rather normal, like other cities, though with the feel of a small city, but clean, safe.
Our day was pleasant. It involved lots of walking, and a ride on the skytrain to the eastern part of the city, from where we boarded a cute little "tourist tugboat" which ferried Yoli and I, as well as one family, along the bay, on either side of which were the buildings of downtown Toronto. Our twenty minute ride landed us at the Granville Island Market, a delightful complex (though touristy) of shops, centered in a warehouse-sized building. Inside were dozens upon dozens of stands and booths, selling every assortment of foodstuff a human being could think of. It's a place where one can spend an easy day wandering and snacking. We listened to a live folk band play folk songs on the wharf and watched the bay and the boats, the attractive buildings, the sea gulls, and soaked up the sun.
After eating lunch-plus a bagel stuffed with cherries for dessert-I thought it might be nice to take a city bus up to Stanley Park, a highlight of Vancouver. I remembered that a friend in Dubai, Paul, had begged me to spend time walking around Stanley Park.
"It's huge," he'd explained over coffee in Dubai. "It takes an hour just for the shuttle bus to make a circle around the park. You can walk along the entrance to the bay for an hour; it's fantastic."
He hadn't been exaggerating. Usually I detest the tourist trolleys driven by a joking guide. For the most part, there are families with stressed-out whiny children who tend to ruin a quiet trip, but the park was so attractively laid out that it didn't matter. We visited the rose garden, strolled along the bay, and hiked uphill through the forest to a lookout point. Naturally there were dozens of tourists there, but the view was great: across another expanse of sea to a vast, broadly sloping hill dotted with neighborhoods. It was obvious there was wildlife in the park when a raccoon came crawling along out of the woods, all of a sudden instigating a rush of tourists, including some Japanese and American families.
We spent the early evening strolling through Gastown, the original settlement of Vancouver, a collection of cobble-stoned streets, mews, courtyards, and Victorian architecture. Since we wanted to save a bit of money, and weren't terribly hungry anyway after our foraging expedition at Granville Island Market, we satisfied our meager hunger at a Subway. A young blond kid behind the counter, sporting an earring, kidded with us while we ordered. This was a city with a friendly, laid-back attitude.
Back at Shirley and Bill's, we had tea and chatted with them and their twenty-nine-year-old son Mike before heading off to some much needed slumber. I liked Mike. He was collecting, with an enthusiasm bordering on the fanatical, anti-Bush info off the web. The next morning, Bill and Shirley drove us into the city for the purpose of catching our Greyhound bus up to the resort town of Whistler. But we had some time to kill and decided to make a return trip to our beloved Granville Island Market. After eating and wandering a few knick knack shops, they dropped us at the bus/rail station.
The station reminded me of some I'd seen in Europe. That's not to say it looked European, just that it was big and roomy with some kiosks and a café. Both Viarail and Amtrak had trains here; each had trains in station just beside where the Greyhound buses were standing, side by side and at an angle. The bus driver took our tickets and stowed the passengers' luggage in the interior of the bus before heading off through downtown and eventually out to the country. Yoli and I had purchased tickets to Whistler, a ski resort renowned throughout North America. Not being a skier, I only knew of Whistler through a colleague in Dubai, whose parents had graciously invited Yoli and I to stay in their condo for four days.
The bus rolled through stunning scenery: low mountains beside huge lakes. When we arrived in Whistler, I felt as if I had transported to a town whose designers had been a blend of Swiss and American. Most of the buildings were four or five stories high, and painted in earth tones. There was a distinctly European feel about them. Part of the town was pedestrian only, with wide walkways between shops containing everything from clothes to adventure travel to Canadian art. A bit of Breckenridge. It felt like the kind of place teachers couldn't afford to be, and in fact, probably was. The Rockies in all their grandeur surrounded the town, and I could see gondolas moving on their cables up the mountain. The bus dropped us at a tiny station which was a combination parking lot and tourist info center. We took a taxi to the condo, which was on the other side of a golf course.
The condo was much more than I'd expected. It was hard to believe that two stories were all ours, and that just about everything we'd need was there. And the back deck was no more than a dozen feet from the near vertical slope of a high forested hill. Fortunately, there was a shuttle bus stop close to the entrance of the neighborhood, so we caught that back to town, wanting to explore. Our big expedition for the evening was doing some grocery shopping at the IGA supermarket and snacking at a deli named The Amsterdam Deli.
The next morning was a bit overcast, which is always disappointing unless you happen to be stranded in the Sahara, but after cooking up a satisfying breakfast, we took the shuttle into town. We could have easily walked along a paved trail in the woods beside the golf course, but Yoli wanted to save up her energy for the town and shopping. As it turned out, after one of those delightful leisurely cups of tea (with a pastry) that one enjoys during one's holidays (unless one is struggling with a bunch of kids), we found a series of wooded trails around Lost Lake.
The gray skies actually cooled things off a bit. After a rigorous hike, we walked out on a wooden pier jutting out into the very still lake. With one of our walking sticks, we determined the depth off the pier to be more than six feet. The chilled waters convinced me that jumping in would result in my being quite cold, so although my kinship with water invited me to swim, I declined with fortitude.
We followed another forested trail, this one reminiscent of deepest Africa due to all the forest growth. I could hear a brook burbling close by, but rarely caught more than a glimpse of its waters through the veil of plant life. "Look at these big plants," said Yoli as we came upon larger-than-life ferns and plants with broad leaves easily measuring two feet in width. I felt like I was in the Lost World.
Done with Africa, back in town, Yoli wandered off to shop and eat at KFC. I wandered a bit, not anywhere in particular, and found a cute little pub that had just finished serving a lunch crowd. The place was empty. When I saw that the menu included pancakes and fried potatoes, I begged the waitress, a young Australian woman, to let me have a plate. I soon sat pouring thick maple syrup on thick, fluffy pancakes.
It seemed, as I discovered more places in the town, that nearly all of the employees were from overseas. There were kids from Australia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Switzerland, and probably many more places. I had noticed on earlier trips to Estes Park Colorado that a number of Europeans were employed in restaurants and shops. Probably good for the owners in financial terms, and definitely a great opportunity for young Europeans to experience the wilderness of North America and earn a few bucks.
In the evening at home, we cooked up some potatoes and tuna fish and took a walk at a rather colossal lake named Alta Lake, just a fifteen minute walk from the condo. After that and an episode of Enterprise, it was time to sleep.
It was July 18th, and even cloudier and chillier than yesterday. I had never been able to adjust to chilly weather even in Nebraska in the Autumn; it seemed positively ludicrous to have to suffer wearing a sweatshirt in mid-July. Back in Dubai, the mercury would probably be reaching 115 degrees now, just as I was renting out my mountain bike near Lost Lake. Yoli had elected to sleep in before joining me in town at a pre-arranged time, so I found myself on a mountain bike pedalling beside still waters. Some of the trails were paved, close to the lake, but then were gravel. I soon was comfortably switching gears, depending on whether I was going up or down hill, and gliding through the forest of pines and spruce on either side. A few other bikers kept me from freaking out about bear attacks, which I illogically do every time I visit any forest anywhere. I should never have watched Night of the Grizzly as a kid.
After an hour or so, I came across Green Lake, which wasn't very Green at all. But it was big and picturesque, a wide expanse of water on the other side of which I could make out specks of people on bikes. A narrow river-nothing more than a stream-meandered through the woods before emptying into the lake. There was civilization here. A neighborhood of very nice new homes was sort of sandwiched in between this corner of the lake and a golf course. As I pedaled along, slowly to enjoy the morning, I noticed a park bench whose legs were submerged in the dark lake waters. Must have been a lot of rain lately, I thought. Elsewhere, guys were fishing. A couple canoers were out paddling, and a hydroplane came in for a lake landing.
All in all, I biked for a couple hours or so. I returned the bike and walked back to town (all of five minutes) to meet Yoli. We feasted on special burgers at this great little grill-bar that had come highly recommended by an Australian. The afternoon was spent walking a lot. We did catch the shuttle over to a point near Green Lake, and I showed Yoli where I had been biking that morning. The afternoon temperature remained brisk, but walking warmed us. In the evening, we played some Chinese Checkers and watched the movie, The Grinch. Good old Jim Carey.
The 19th. We were at Alta Lake on a glorious sunny day, in a canoe paddling like mad against a wind that the boat rental guy (an Australian!) had told us was the worst he'd seen in months. Still, it was sheer fun, with Yoli in front of the canoe and me in the rear, each clutching a paddle. The Australian had explained the art of steering a canoe: "You stick the paddle in more vertically and pull back if you want speed; to turn, you pull through the water with the paddle nearly horizontal." The trick was for Yoli and I to coordinate our movements. Another couple, new to canoeing, had not made it out of the shallow water beside the pier. Their depressing abilities to pilot a canoe served the dual purpose of getting them stuck in a tangle of reeds and causing Yoli to chuckle. The poor Australian youth had to wade through to fetch them out. Yoli and I did ourselves proud, gliding out into the lake in no time and soon finding ourselves in the center of a rather large, imposing lake. The gusty wind forced tiny wavelets to ripple across the surface. The mountains-some with snow on the peaks-looked down at us, a narrow speck in a monstrous pool. We rested for a few minutes when we'd paddled with gusto to the northern end of the lake. A few lakefront houses had their own tiny piers with rowboats snuggled up next to the dock. A few people were picnicking or just sitting on the banks. After we'd stopped rowing, it didn't take long for the wind to send us in a wide turn, so that we had to start paddling again. At some point we made our way to a sharply ascending tree-covered bank. In actuality, the wind rather took us there, propelling us along despite our feeble battling against the twin elements of wind and water. Still, it was nice to just sit next to the bank, until the branches began scratching my face, and then it was back out to the wide waters.
Afterwards, we took a shuttle bus a few kilometers down the road to a place called Function Junction. I don't know what the function of Function Junction was, but it didn't seem to offer much. We'd been told about some nice trails but couldn't find anyone at first to explain just where the trails were. I wanted a cup of tea before hiking, anyway, imagine my frustration at discovering that the collection of old wooden buildings here were more like industrial warehouses and engine-fixing shops, an out-of-whistler (mostly for tourists) stop for true locals in the area. I found it appalling that there wasn't one coffee house to be found. There was something like Ace Hardware, in which Yoli bought a drink, but that was it.
The trails turned to be across a highway. We spent an hour or so trudging up this lightly forested trail. While the view was okay, it was nothing special either, so we descended. There was a nice little patch of woods at the bottom of the trail, which were marked with signs offering a few educational words about the flora and fauna. At least it was cool in this shaded wood. My only irritant was a single fly that refused to stop attempting a landing on my face. Yesterday I was chilled to the bone and this morning sweating and swatting attacking flies. How life can change.
The evening in town was lazy. Drinking tea and scanning Lonely Planet travel books wistfully was the core entertainment. I could have sat for hours gazing at the photos of Laos or Tibet or Chile, but the owners like to close before bedtime. By late evening we were back at the condo, exhausted. Nothing like fighting to stay alive at sea to send one into a snoring oblivion.
Our last full day in Whistler was actually not in Whistler, but 10,000 feet above the town. Standing in line waiting for a gondola to take us up into the Rockies was a bit like waiting to board a Disney attraction. It took a good half hour. Each gondola held ten people, so Yoli and I squeezed in with eight others for the ride up. On our way, at about the halfway point, someone cried out, "Look, down there! A bear!"
Sure enough, a bear was on the trail about fifty or sixty feet below us. About a hundred feet from the bear was a ranger and a couple of hikers, all pointing at the bear. We continued up for what turned out to be a twenty minute ride, all along skimming treetops and gliding over ravines which in a few months would be ridden over by armies of skiers. When our gondola reached the gondola house, we stepped off and walked out onto a huge deck overlooking an area of thinning forest. We were getting closer to the alpine tundra. A hike further up would take us beyond the tree line. But first we wanted to warm up (not really, but I any excuse for tea) in the gigantic lodge-like tourist center. Up a flight of stairs and we passed through a great dining hall of plain dark-wooden tables, and then out to a vantage point where some of the trails started.
After the obligatory photo shoot (and assisting Japanese tourists in their photo shoot of each other), we "hiked" down a gently sloping dirt trail. It just looked inviting and I felt like bonding with trees before heading up into the barren, arctic-looking tundra. As it turns out, about fifty feet along the trail, a couple with their kid came up to us, the woman offering a friendly warning, "There's a mama grouse up ahead who won't let us pass. She's got some chicks."
Well, we hadn't hiked more than a minute or so before Yoli spotted the offending creature about a dozen feet away, next to shrubs lining the path. It kind of clucked angrily at us, seeming to stomp it's clawed feet at the ground defiantly. I thought, grouse indeed. A damned bird isn't going to get in our way or it'll see my hiking boots up close." The trouble was that I wasn't wearing hiking boots, but tennis shoes, and when it started fluttering its wings, we retreated. Yoli was laughing. "Good grief. No tourists can get by because of a mad mother hen."
Well, being a nature lover, I wasn't going to harm one of God's creatures, who had a right to her territory. Besides, by the time I found a rock it had vanished. We walked on a bit, carefully and with held breath through the danger zone. Another few minutes and we rested. The valley in which Whistler lay crossed below the mountain we stood on. At a lower altitude was a deep blue lake, with patches of snow here and there. The silence was like a pervasive whisper, just the hint of breeze touching the earth, the trees, each plant, and even the grouse.
But I'm human and was ready to climb the mountain, so we strolled back the pathway-until a familiar enemy stood blocking our path, along with a couple baby chicks. Fortunately for mom grouse, the heady heights of the Rockies had instilled a calm within me, so I only rolled a rock along the path, aiming to the left of the fowl. It worked. She allowed us by with no further violence.
As we hiked with increasingly aching limbs up a steep and wide road, admiring glaciers and lakes and tundra, I noted that the higher we climbed, the fewer the tourists. They had been numerous at the gondola house, and even dozens of brave families had started the trek upwards. But after a half hour or so, the crowd had thinned. I quietly rejoiced at not having children. I'd seen more than one father half carrying a child down the "trail". Only the sturdy could make it. Well, and those who rested every twenty feet. We passed walls of snow and melting pools and lookout points. After an arduous hour, we reached the summit, or what passed as the summit for the couple dozen tourists who'd made it that far.
Not since my trek in Nepal the previous year had I been so impressed. Even inspired. Nature may be everywhere, but where Nature shows her grandeur is usually beyond the reaches of the masses of humanity. Like the Himalayas for example. And here. From a great pile of rocks we climbed upon, we had a 360 view of spectacular snow-touched peaks. There was a valley just below us, barren and very cold looking. I could see a couple backpackers snaking their way along a snow-packed trail.
We stayed up there a couple hours. Some of it standing, some sitting in a niche of rock. The wind was sharp, our sweatshirts barely sufficient protection. We weren't the only visitors; a couple dozen tourists were braving the mountain's frosty breath.
What goes up must come down, but the descent was nearly as difficult as the ascent. "Walking" down a mountain, even along the wide footpath that wound its way to the gondola house, requires using different muscles in the legs; hence, you get a thorough workout. Since I had been using the treadmill for several weeks before the trip, I didn't feel much soreness.
After a rest and a snack, and a twenty minute wait in the gondola line, we stepped into our little glass cage for the ride down. No bears were around this time, just a bunch of teenagers mountain biking, rather recklessly I thought, along the sharply descending trails. One woman with us said to her husband, "I can't believe they're doing that! Are they crazy?" I guess when you get older...
On level ground, we made our evening trek through the IGA supermarket and then took the shuttle to the condo. Feeling energetic still, I jogged down to Alta lake just as a lucent sun lay half hidden behind a three-thousand foot mountain. I loved the amber glow that both made the sky almost fluorescent and darkened the sides of the mountains. The boat rental shop had closed up, but a dozen or more vacationers were sitting on the beach, except one group that was standing beer in hand around a grill, joking amiably. I walked out on the pier, deeply considering-and really wanting to-jump in. A blond man in his early twenties climbed up the ladder from the dark waters and onto the pier.
"Water cold?" I asked, hoping not to sound like a chicken. It was a dumb question; of course it was frigid. I had already frozen my finger by timidly sticking it into the lake. The guy replied, "Yes, it's pretty cold, but not too bad." I heard the unmistakable Russian accent, and asked him where he was from.
"Russia," he said, "But I've been here for a couple years." Well, considering there are Russians who chisel out the ice on the Nevski River and jump in, I wasn't encouraged. Back towards the beach, I saw that no one remained in the water, and now a new unease developed within. Apprehension. Not much, of course. After all, I've been diving in the Indian Ocean and snorkeled regularly in Dubai. Good grief. But really dark lake water just looked spooky. I told myself not to be ridiculous. I was an accomplished swimmer and there existed nothing more than fish in this lake. Probably quite small fish.
A couple other guys walked onto the pier and came my way, at the end. One of them, a thin guy with dark hair, sat on the edge of the pier; the other dove right into the lake. When he surfaced, he gave out a little cry. I asked him how the water was, which was another dumb question. He'd made it perfectly clear with his "Ahhhhgg!" that it wasn't tepid bath water. He assured me it was quite chilly, his accent telling me he was Australian. I decided that if a foreigner could jump in a cold mountain lake, I could. Of course I had forgotten that being American made me a foreigner in Canada.
I dove in. Hitting the water was like having a few pounds of ice cubes poured over you. Underwater, I opened my eyes, even then relishing the ability to do so. In the sea, such an action results in pain. I might as well have kept them shut. The "inside" of the lake was like gray ink. I broke the surface and cried out a naughty word. The Australian guy chuckled.
The sky was a scarlet flush, just gorgeous. We trod water slowly, becoming accustomed to the temperature. The nippy air felt increasingly warm to our exposed bodies; in fact, I wanted to stay in the water and just swim and float. But it was going to be dark and I wanted to be back at the condo before night engulfed the community-and brought out the bears.
I jogged slowly back up the street, a residential neighborhood of average houses, not the more sumptuous structures near the golf course. I hadn't brought a towel, but was pretty much dry halfway home from my invigorating swim in a mountain lake.
SEATTLE and THE COAST STARLIGHT
The sun was low in the sky on one of those rare sunny days in Seattle Washington. Yoli and I were with our friends Sherry and Gleb, who'd married a couple years before after dating in Omaha. Gleb, originally from Russia, was in his mid twenties, a computer ace who had landed an awesome job with Microsoft, hence the move to Seattle. Sherry, a petite woman looking about 16, shepherded us around a marina that played home to a couple dozen fine-looking boats, large and small. They served as volunteer sailors at the marina a couple times a week, with a burgeoning love of the sea and the vessels that ply the waves. They were particularly fond of sailboats, and were becoming good sailors in their own right. They asked permission to take us out, but since it was only a couple hours from sundown, we couldn't go.
Instead, we walked along the piers, Gleb proudly pointing out various boats. We strolled alongside a replica of a 17th-Century schooner, a fine vessel capable of hoisting three sails. A middle-aged man in dungarees stood leaning against a rail in front of her. Gleb began chatting, and I asked the man where the ship traveled.
"She can go out to sea and up the coast as far as Alaska, usually," the man said. He explained how a crew of volunteers worked her during the sailings. "It's a good way to travel," he added. "A couple of young guys like you would be able to get a job, easy."
We wound up driving over a giant of a bridge and to an ordinary street filled with shops and restaurants. Nothing overly touristy, but a bit classy. It was set along a wide bay, and again Gleb led us to another tinier marina. The day was nearly finished, the pale yellow sun getting ready to fall out of the sky in an hour. The weather, for Seattle, was fine, probably a cause for jubilation. People sat in boats or on the wharf, dangling feet into water. A couple smaller boats cruised along, and I spied the most peculiar-looking car/boat in the water.
"What is it exactly?" I inquired. The thing looked exactly like something out of a James Bond film: a tiny 50's looking sports car, only puttering along in ten feet of dark ocean. A nondescript man and a woman sat in the front seats, a smaller woman in the back. Actually, the oddity turned several heads, not just the head of the boy from Nebraska. Several people were gawking, gazing or pointing. Maybe they were all visitors from the Midwest, though.
Italian food was our choice for the night. Luckily, we managed to locate a tiny, really plain café advertising good Italian for only a few dollars. Turned out to be pretty decent too. Since it was inexpensive, I picked up the tab. Back at Gleb and Sherry's condo, Yoli and I were introduced to their cat, a sleek animal that was actually friendly, with nearly continuous purrs or meows emanating from its cute little open mouth. Gave me pause (not paws) to think about owning a cat someday. Pun intended.
After chatting and playing the kind of video games that my nephew enjoys (where wild looking characters in various castle-like rooms or exotic locations beat the hell out of each other with swift kicks and punches), we retired to our room. It turned out to be hot and stuffy, but bearable with the window open. Sherry had warned me that Seattle had very little air conditioning. I made up my mind that evening that I would not be moving to Seattle.
I needed a walk-and another disposable camera-so I walked a block through the neighborhood of semi-extravagant condos to a supermarket. I stocked up on some sugar free candy for the train trip, and strolled back.