7 – Across America by Rail

Salt Lake City Amtrak Station (12/10/11)

The rain kept on coming down and the two girls stayed awhile before Diane left to get some sleep, leaving Susan and I to read. Also to converse: first with the insistent Bill Thompson, a Mormon, who mistook us for a couple in the same way that he mixed up belief and truth as he tried to convert us. Rainbows at Truckee slowed his friendly but intense assault, but no sooner had he retreated than Fred Allen, on his way from NorCal to Miami, took his place, with stories of being a sniper and school reunions that got ever more slurred as he sipped booze from a Gatorade bottle.

Fred and Bill argued later, as Susan and I ate snacks and watched Nevada slip by. She rescued Fred’s drink as he slept, and Diane eventually joined us for dinner: chicken for them and fatty ribs for me. We returned to an almost empty lounge and watched Dr Who, but soon all said our farewells. I tried to sleep on the chair and found myself fitfully shifting until I was woken by my alarm as we passed the Great Salt Lake in the dark.

Stowing my rucksack at 3am, I walked into town, dodging hoboes as I found my way to Main Street, where there were few other souls. I passed through the Temple District in the dark, then located a Tourist Office (closed) with active wifi, then a Starbucks in the Marriott, where I waited Skyping until dawn. When it was light, I gathered my bag and headed north, up the hill to the State Capitol, where another tourist office gave me some maps and ideas for exploring. I headed back downhill to the library, but it was still early, and then across town to the Gate, where a Barnes & Noble provided another resting place.

I didn’t want to eat too early, so I headed for the Temple District again, where I tried out the north and south visitor centres, the Tabernacle and the tower, aided by several friendly guides, and had the Temple explained to me. All just a little odd, and by the end of it I needed a break from Mormons, ending up in the Olive Garden restaurant, where an Italian smorgasbord defeated me. To walk it off, I headed back to the library, which sheltered a very unfriendly comic shop, then north to Freedom Walk, which I found my way down to after some difficulties, only to encounter small groups—high schoolers with a lost wallet, a model on a shoot, a pro photographing a family at a war memorial—it was almost biblical in tone.

Up at the Capitol, I explored the almost empty, cavernous interior, then sat and watched the sun go down over the mountains. It was still a little early for a show, so I searched for the Marriott Starbucks, only to find it closed, then tried another in the Gate for an underwhelming frappucino. Thus ended my dalliance with the mermaid.

It was time to head to the Planetarium, which was tacky but cheap, where I subjected my sleep-deprived brain to 40mins of Led Zeppelin, lasers, and a psychedelic light show. Amazingly, when I went around the corner to the Bout Time bar, where I had Evolution Ale and Cherry Bock, I functioned well enough to win an electronic quiz game three times.

Using up the last of the hours was “The Ides of March,” a rather spiffing political thriller, which kept me interested and awake. No train after midnight when I emerged, but the weather was good enough to retrace my morning route easily and reclaim my bag, and so here I sit, waiting for the train, hoping for sleep and badly needing a shower.

California Flyer, East of Denver (13/10/11)

I slept poorly on the train out of Salt Lake City, when I slept at all, and for most of that journey I stayed glued to my seat. I did venture into the lounge in the morning, to work on photos and watch the last of Utah pass by, but the time we moved into Colorado, I’d settled into my two seats.

In way of compensation, the scenery started out beautiful and got more impressive as we climbed into the Rockies, moving from dry tablelands to the Colorado river with its valleys, red rocks, white water, and snow. We finally made it to  the high point at Moffat Tunnel, the Continental Divide, and emerged on the other side to more beauty and a first glimpse of Denver on the plain below.

Bright sunshine lit our swooping way downhill, and we pulled into Denver more or less on schedule. Reconstruction at Union Station made reaching town tricky, but whether it was stubbornness or tiredness that made me eschew the free mall bus, I don’t know. A long walk that took me past the Occupy Denver protestors brought me at last to 11th Street Hostel, and after checking in, I headed to Lucianos for a Christmas Ale and pizza, but I was too tired to pursue beer options thereafter. I returned to the hostel, tinkered with stuff for a while, then slept. (Shower, shave, etc. had been very necessary.)

Next morning, I wasn’t too fast getting up. After I did, I headed to Dozens for breakfast and explored the Sunken Garden before returning to check myself out and check in my bag. Heading to the Capitol and its (3) mile-high steps, I poked around but was disappointed by the construction that stopped me going outside at the dome.  From there, I took the mall bus to Riverfront Park, where I followed the Platte in the sun before succumbing to the omnipresent thirst and heading back to 16th Street. I wandered slowly back to town (dealing with some legal matters on the way), considering my options, and dropped into the Federal Reserve’s Money Museum before deciding to use my last few hours in art appreciation.

The Denver Art Museum is stunning on the outside and pretty nice inside too, with some fascinating native and pre-Columbian art. Eventually I had to go though, returning to the hostel and grabbing my bags for the much shorter return trek to the station. There I had to pay for a Denver-D.C. ticket but was otherwise well able to arrange things the way I wanted. Sunset had come and gone by the time we boarded, but I at least got a pair of seats to myself.

We’re in the prairie now, barrelling along in the dark. Not much left to do but wait for Chicago at midday tomorrow.

Capitol Limited, Beyond South Bend, IN (14/10/11)

Not much to write about. A day of travelling, all the way to Chicago and beyond. Struggled to sleep on the recliner chair and I’m likely to do the same this evening. Watched cornfields and creeks pass by, small towns and big rivers too. Spent almost all the day playing Grand Prix Story, earning myself a headache in the process. Resting wasn’t helped by having to share my seats with someone else in the early hours.

When I got to Chicago, I had an hour and a half in between trains. That’s what happens when you change your plans. It’s a hard slog from Denver to D.C., but it’s still the best way to travel. I could really do with eating better though—more fruit and veg and more regular meals. I had a ham and cheese toastie in Union Station and some crisps and water here.

Right now I’m in the lounge, having watched a Chicago sunset and glimpsed Hallowe’en decorations in the dark. Reminds me that I’m down to the last fortnight now. (We’re passing by a highway littered with car lots and other businesses—strange to see.) Liz tomorrow and D.C. for a few days, then New York and Rick and Marianne likewise. Finally Boston and a return to New York JFK and home. It’s all falling together.

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. (17/10/11)

The last morning on the train, I had breakfast with Paul, a veteran; Lucy, a onservationist; and Sara, who was about to start an internship with Al Jazeera. The conversation was good, even if my French Toast wasn’t. After that, I flipped between lounge car and seat until we arrived in D.C.

I got to Union Station just as Liz and Hu did, and they shortly whisked me away to her place in Arlington, where I dropped my bags and had a shower, after we had some welcome food and beer—sharing both—at the nearby Fireworks.

That evening we went to the D.C. United game, where I had my first taste of tailgating, and Liz got me a ticket to a game that ended horribly, the home team conceding two goals in injury time after going 1-0 up from a penalty just before. Still, I enjoyed myself, especially the chanting. We got some beers after at the Galaxy Bar and then I spent the last hour of wakefulness putting iOS 5 on my iPhone.

The next day, the three of us headed to a condo Liz was looking to rent, then to the Cowboy Cafe for a western-style brunch. After that, our goal was Great Falls Park, where we had a look at the falls on the Potomac and then trekked along the river and back for a few miles. We’d worked up a nice appetite, so we headed to Alexandria, VA, and had more good beer (Virtue) and some Irish-accented food. A walk along the waterfront followed, and I was glad to wrap up the day, relatively early, at Bilbo Baggins/The Green Dragon, with some more fine ales.

This morning, I headed into town with Liz, not to book train tickets as planned but instead just to roam. Starting with the Air & Space Museum, I circled the Mall, visiting the Native American Museum, the Capitol and the National Gallery (as well as the Newseum), all briefly, before being unable to get close to the White House, due to a cocktail reception. The Washington, WWII, and Lincoln Memorials were more welcoming though, even if the Reflecting Pool had been torn up. Plus, with the morning clouds now gone, I have a few hours yet to explore.

12.02 to Boston, North of Baltimore (19/10/11)

After the Lincoln Memorial, I visited the nearby Vietnam and Korean War monuments, then headed to the Tidal Pool for a stroll around the monuments there. First, the brand new MLK monument, opened a day or two before. Then the FDR monument, telling its story in red granite and waterfalls. Finally the Jefferson monument, disappointingly grandiose despite the appeal of its simple, classical form.

Afterwards, I finished my walk by returning to the Smithsonian Metro stop and heading back to Rosslyn. When Liz got back, we ordered in Asian food (prawn wontons and mu-shu pork for me) then spent the evening engaged in brewing beer and chatting about life and the future.

Next morning, Liz headed to work, leaving me moving a little more slowly, eventually making my way to Union Station, where I dealt with train ticket booking. It was a bright morning, so once I was done, I walked west along K Street, finding a shop that sold the Irish Times, and then angled a little north, following Pennsylvania Avenue to Georgetown. A nice ice cream fortified me until I hit an Apple Store, where I could chat to Siri, who recommended the nearby Pizzeria Paradiso. There I had Pizza Genovese, Great Falls Nosferatu and Hop Head, all while chatting to Bello, a cute Mongolian bartender in fetching hotpants.

Out the door, I desserted on a cupcake, then set off on a long walk out by the C&O Canal, back across the river to Theodore Roosevelt Island, downstream to Arlington Cemetery and eventually back to Rosslyn. After a short rest, I was off again to meet Hu and Liz in Fireworks, where we tried some Evolution ales and porters before heading to Ray’s Hell Burger for a burger and cheesecake milkshakes. After that Liz and I headed home, where we did some laundry, sample whiskey, and watched Run Lola Run.

Next morning, we got up early, had breakfast and were out the door into a wet and windy autumn morning. We went our separate ways on the metro at Farragut, and I checked my rucksack expensively at Union Station. An hour was spent exploring the rear of the Capitol, especially the Library of Congress, but I was soon back in the station, picking up food and comics. Right now I’m on a train, passing by Elkton, moving fast but with hours to go before Boston. All seems set, and hopefully my last week will be as fun as all the preceding ones have been.

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