The train starts out at Emeryville: a modest bus terminal just north of Oakland. The Capital Corridor trains stop here as well as the connecting buses from San Francisco and other towns not served directly by Amtrak’s trains. An hour or two later, and the California Zephyr is in Sacramento. From here, we press East along the original route of the Central Pacific into the Sierra Nevada.
The Central Pacific was surveyed and championed by Theodore Judah, through the Sierra Nevada, as the first leg of what would become the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad, once joined with the Union Pacific, which built East from St. Louis, to Promontory, Utah. It was built to accommodate the rail technology of the mid-nineteenth century. This means wide curves and grades of no more than three percent. As we traverse high fills that reveal to us ever more striking views of the valleys below, punctuated by the next tunnel through the next mountain, we also encounter the occasional highway, that is less concerned with gentle grades and bends, and thus less exposed to fantastic views.
The longest tunnel on the line, two miles through a mountain, stalled the Central Pacific’s progress out of the Sierra Nevada to the flat desert wasteland of Nevada for nearly two frustrating years. Teams of Chinese laborers worked around the clock, pounding drills into the granite, until they got a hole appropriate to fill with black powder. Evacuate, light the fuse, boom, go back and clear out the pieces, and start drilling the next hole. Sometimes progress was as slow as six inches a day.
The tunnel was drilled and blasted from both ends, and another team was sent up over the mountain to blast a vertical shaft, from which two more teams were lowered into the mountain to work, spreading progress across a total of four tunnel facings.
The railroad was at first skeptical of Chinese laborers, but many of the Irish and other Easterners they hired had a tendency to wander off to the coal mines. So, the railroad hired fifty short Celestials to see if they were any good, and they proved most excellent. Despite their small size, they were hard, steady, intelligent workers. They took the wilderness and rough weather with better health because they boiled their water to drink as tea, and instead of drinking whiskey, preferred the relaxing vice of smoking opium on their day off.
We also passed through the last few concrete snow sheds. Many miles of snow sheds were built along the line because the terrible winter blizzards had a nasty habit of tearing out long sections of hard-won trackwork, necessitating not only repairs, but delaying work at the end of the line, which depended on the track to deliver needed material. Of course, these original wood snow sheds had a tendency to catch fire from the original, wood-burning, steam locomotives.
I believe a paramount frustration of building the Central Pacific was that all of the engines, rolling stock, and iron rails had to be shipped from the factories of the East Coast, carried across the jungle isthmus at Panama, and shipped thence up to Sacramento, where they could finally be unloaded, at three or four times their original cost. It was this same voyage through the Panamanian jungle that granted Ted Judah the yellow fever that killed him before the railroad could be finished.
Abraham Lincoln had also been a long-time proponent of the Transcontinental Railroad, promoting it first as a lawyer, then a lawmaker, and finally as President. It was an assassin’s bullet that denied him his dream of some day seeing California.
I missed whatever scenery Nevada had to offer, as I sampled the expensive, high-quality dinner offered in the dining car. As table space is limited, each table is filled with four passengers. This makes mealtime a nice chance to socialize with fellow travellers, though the majority are from the expensive sleeping-compartment section of the train, which gets free meals as part of their accommodations.
I took every other meal in the dining car, as the prices were not too much higher than what I’m used to in the Bay Area, and I figured that since I’d scored my ticket with an Internet discount for only $60, that it was not unreasonable to make up a little of that difference in the dining car.
I stretched out across two coach seats at night, changing my clothes the next morning in one of the larger “changing room” bathrooms. Sprawled across a pair of coach seats is not the greatest way to sleep, especially at my height, but then it is not like you have really demanding days on the train, which tend to consist of naps between bouts of scenic appreciation, reading, and visits to the snack bar or dining car.
My Canon S100 Digital Elph ate more than half my pictures from two seperate CF cards. This is insanely frustrating. I know I’m not somehow deleting pictures, because the screen flashed white and suddenly told me that I had twenty pictures left, instead of the three or so I’d thought I had. Grr! For some reason, it erases all the pictures I took, and then gives me room for a fraction of the pictures that the card can legitimately store. Canon’s frustating tech support can only conclude that I somehow delete my pictures on purpose.
Grrr, I had to rant. Maybe someone has experienced and solved this?
We had a station stop in Grand Junction, CO. I was able to purchase a baggie of juicy, locally-grown grapes, a baggie of trail mix, and a Klondike bar. Mmmm, yummy breakfast. Lunch was a swiss cheese burger in the dining car. Dinner was the last of the buns I had claimed during my two previous visits to the dining car, the rest of my grapes and trail mix, and the remainder of the container of rice the woman seated behind me offered. Yum!
Next time I bring sandwichs.
The trip down from the mountains into Denver made the day beautiful. At the last station before Denver, I wanted to just get off the train and dig the beautiful town that was nestled in a verdant bowl surrounded by forests and Mountains. It looked like a paradise to me. After that, we continued our trek across the top of the world, until we hit the winding track, back and forth, down the valley to the handful of skycrapers in the hazy distance, that marked Denver. Back and forth, back and forth, the train traced its winding way down the grade. We passed deer, along the way, who munched on their grass a few feet away from the train, unoffended by the loud, shiny, metal, diesel-powered thing that we were.
Breakfast in the dining car. You gotta get up early for that. This is probably the easiest meal to skip. You aren’t missing much. No three-dollar pancake and egg slams there.
After a couple of days on the train, I am not the only passenger that passes the time dozing. What better to do in a dark, quiet cabin that is gently rocking back and forth? This morning in Nebraska I caught sight of a Mountain Lion pacing us at great speed along the tracks. Maybe it was a Cheetah, because then I saw a tiger prowling past, and a zebra walking out of a pasture gate adjacent to the tracks. Circus? Zoo escape?!
The mystery was settled, to my satisfaction, upon waking up and seeing the real Nebraska landscape.
There were a lot of fascinating old towns, rusting out along the line through Iowa and Illinois. I wanted to step through the window and touch and feel each one. I’d heard there was a drought this year in the midwest, but I was suprised to see the corn so low, and tan.
Rolling green hills of hay and history
The living dream of our peasant forefarmers
Ancient telephone poles overcome by trees and ivy
Brave maize weather drought for harvest, the soy grow low
One hundred thousand barns, some new, others frail with age
But still useful, and used
M i s s i s s i p p i
Now we are in Illinois
It wasn’t long after I saw the skyline and noted to anyone who listened that the station was only two blocks from the Sears Tower, that I was off the train, had to ask for bearings, and grabbed the L home to mom, field-testing the luggage on known public transit.
I have been doing far less exploring of Chicago than I had intended. Wednesday I went to scope out Internet Cafe’s in my neighborhood. I found a nice place on Clark Street where I was the only customer. There was a pretty little garden with a fountain in the back. I had a sandwich and a go at the Chicago Reader, which is a truly magnificent publication.
Afterward, I thought that I was darned near a high school friend whose number I had failed to pull from my archives. Okay, well, let us explore. I found her house and wrote her a letter, not expecting her to be home so early in the afternoon. The letter told of what had happened since I got layed off last year, and I sealed it in the envelope that came with one of the cool Chinese-motif cards that I had in the pocket of my jacket. I couldn’t find any great place to leave the letter, so I rang the bell, figuring an elder family member might be around to receive it.
The friend in question was home. I coaxed her out for a walk, where we got to check out the Loyola campus. The weather was beautiful and my camera’s battery went kaput just as I tried to capture the beauty of Lake Michigan on a clear day. We rounded around back towards Sheridan, where we stopped at a nice, unwired cafe, which I totally dug. I had a meaty sandwich, chips, and a cookie for about $5, then dropped another $2 on a smoothy, while my friend went for some ice cream. A nice place to talk.
I walked home from there. Back on Clark I encountered a Chicano vendor offerig sweet corn on a stick to patrons at a Latin social organization. I grabbed one myself for $1.25, and as he slathered it with mayonnaise, butter, hot sauce, salt, I was reminded of home. Home in California. I thought it interesting that in my Home in Chicago a Mexican vendor should remind me of Home in California. I guess three years at 3,000 miles is sufficient for a touch of diaspora.
I got to meet up with Vern and Sharon by Belmont on Thursday evening. At an old EnterAct hangout called Cesar’s, Vern downed a large, a mega, and a large margarita. Sharon had but a single large, the smallest size they offer, and I had to chase my large with a mega, just to represent at Vern. We also ate dinner, as the waiter tried to flirt with me. Unfortunately for him, I know how waiters operate. Instead, as I admired the various pretty women around the place, I saw this one guy, out on a double date with a hot chick, was wearing a tee-shirt that enumerated the top ten reasons why his company was a great place to work.
Being, as I am, a recovering nerd with a budding sense of fashion and dating propriety, and a wanna-be author, and in posession of a couple of postcards, and pretty freaking sloshed, I wrote him a postcard, addressed it to him, placed a stamp on it, and left the postcard on his table on our way out the door. The postcard in question featured a black and white photo of a baby with a bar code tattooed on his rear. It seemed horribly appropriate, as the baby metaphorically symbolized innocence branded, which totally captured tee-shirt man.
Afterwards, we hung out on a street corner, sobering up. I went into the Walgreens to piss, and on my return, was informed that tee-shirt man had walked by, and expressed seemingly genuine gratitude at my action. It is probably just as well that I missed it, because I’d only be able to blush all the more, which, considering my inebriation, would have been overdoing it.
Instead, I was checking out a girl in a car at the streetcorner, as she seemed to be checking me out. As the car peeled away, the driver leaned over and yelled “DANNYMAN SUCKS!”
“I think that was Blake,” cried Sharon.
Blake was a former colleague of ours at EnterAct, though colleague is too strong of a word. Insane lunatic would better capture his professionalism, as we had known it.
I’ve completed my third International Call of the day. The first I received from Germany, where a highschool friend is with the foreign service. He has a spare room in Frankfurt, from where I’m flying to Amman. “My wife loves Amman! It is totally beautiful! Only five days?” It sounds like I shall be well-prepared for the Europe to Jordan transition.
The second I placed to BMI, my carrier from Heathrow to Amsterdam. I’ve pushed the flight back a week, so that I can visit Duncan, a former work colleague who lives in London. The first time I contacted BMI, the guy didn’t know what to do with my ticket, and became flustered. Okay, let him go and contact Airtreks, who said it shouldn’t be a big deal, here’s the “fare basis” – a “date change” will cost 25 GPB or 40 Euros. This time, as I listened to the quaint beep-beep of a British ringtone, and pressed four, and got connected right up to a real live operator, who was ready to help me find the “fare basis” on my ticket for me, I got everything squared away with no trouble.
I’ll not be flying on September 11. Well, I’ll arrive at Heathrow on September 11. I guess that’s good enough for Patriotism. I’m flying out of London on the seventeenth.
The third call was a voicemail message to the aforementioned friend in London, explaining that maybe we are best off making whatever arrangements are necessary via e-mail.
Last night in the United States. For four months. I escape just in time to miss out on the endless tributes to 9-11 that our national media are already obsessing themselves with. I’m actually kind of curious just what the terrorists are going to try this time around. Sounds like they tried to hit Karzai the other day. It won’t be easy for them. Good!
Loose ends today. I found a place with an office in Chicago that can supply me with a European Rail Pass tomorrow morning. The flight out is on Air India. Arrive at Heathrow early afternoon on the eleventh.
The excited British women, their shopping bags bulging with Disney souvenirs, remind me of Monty Python sketches, as they bitch in their upset British housewife accents about the repeated security searches.
My ride to Europe, on Air India’s 747-400, “Agra” – note the funky window decor!
There is a lot of security. Bags x-rayed at check-in, the normal metal detector, x-ray, shoes search at the gate entrance, and then a last ring of security contractors, conducting a cursory search of everyone’s bag at the gate itself.
“Calm down, ladies,” I want to say. “This is America.” Then I think about it some more. Air India, a huge 747-400, fueled to fly from Chicago, home of the world’s tallest building, with a load of Americans, British, and Hindus, to arrive in the capital of Britain, America’s closest ally, on September 11. Search me, baby, one more time!
When our airplane pulls up, I have to smile. The window frames are each painted with an ornate frame that reminds me of the Taj Mahal. I arrived with about four hours to spare, earning myself a window seat at an exit row. Seat 42K. It sounds like the rear of the plane, but given its enormous size, this is actually the first row in economy class.
A little past 9AM on September 11, and I can think of no better place to be than above the clouds with Air India, slipping in from the northern Atlantic Ocean towards Eire, an hour away from touch-down at London.
I feel the physical discomfort of an abbreviated night. We got on the plane at 9PM in Chicago, which was 3AM Greenwich. Now it is 3AM in Chicago, 9AM here. 3AM wake-up call with little sleep? It is days like this that I’m reminded of my first day in Army training, at Fort McClellan, in 1994.
This time, however, the new world of experiences that I’m losing sleep for is the old world. London, here I come.
The view over the North Atlantic, en route to London. Where better to be on September 11?
The English coast is so beautiful, seen from up here. The map of our flight progress displayed on Air India’s monitors is a wonderful treat.
Most of the folks on this plane are elders. Old Indians returning to India, on a long flight from the States. I imagine that at least a few were visiting prodigal daughters and sons, who are making their ways in America.
And with them, some of us hitch a cheap ride to Europe, as they have room for us, and it is on the way. Indian passengers, served by Indian staff, serving Indian food, which was damned tasty.
The idea of Indians transporting Americans to Europe hardly strikes us as weird or novel, but there was certainly a time when it was. That this is entirely ordinary, and expected, is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I pray that all the people should find themselves comfortable in the presence of others. Familiarity promotes trust, trust promotes love, and it gets harder to hijack planes.
9:37AM and I can see them driving on the left! It wont be long now!
We got off the plane, onto a tarmac that was filled with random jumbles of equipment. Officials herded us on to buses, which they called trolleys, because the British call everything trolleys. Okay, drive around the airport for a while, and eventually we were off-loaded at the immigration station. Up a flight of stairs, and those of us coming from outside the EU or the British Commonwealth got to stand in our own queue for not a very long time.
The immigration officer perked up a little at my approach, complimenting my brightly-colored shirt. He asked me what was I doing, I told him I was a tourist. Did I have a ticket home? Yeah, well, eventually, from Osaka. Could he see a ticket? Well, here’s Jordan. Yeah, whatever. You got money? Yeah, like $10,000 on my ATM card. Okay, here’s your stamp.
Wary of the 1.5% commission on the currency exchanges at baggage claim, I wandered through the twisty warrens of Heathrow Airport in to another terminal, which had an ATM. I withdrew £50, and asked around for a phone card. Got a £5 card at the currency exchange. Okay, time to call Duncan. Busy. Well, how about his work number? Busy. Okay, what else can we do?
I grabbed a set of four passport photos from a vending machine for £3, then tried Duncan again. Busy, busy. Hrmmm, okay, well, let’s use one of these photos to secure a seven-day pass, and hop on the Underground to see what we can do from downtown.
I tried again from a pay phone across from Green Park. Busy, busy. Operator comes on and says what’s your card number? I tell her. What number are you dialing? I tell her. Doop doop, says the British ring. Duncan answers.
“Why did you go to Green Park?”
“It sounds like a nice place.”
I navigated my way over to his office, where I exchanged my backpack for a bottle of some strawberry yogurt smoothy thing. Thanks, Duncan. The plan was that I should bum around London for a little while, meeting Duncan back at work about 6:30, when we’d ride back to his place. Okay.
I was operating on lack of sleep and the whole city just seemed kind of magically weird to me, so I wandered. And wandered, and I kept wandering. I found myself in Westminster Abbey standing on a slab of stone that kindly informed me that a few dozen monks who had died in the black plage were interred below. The Abbey is full of stones lain atop similarly distinguished clergy, and quite a few of the inscriptions are worn off. I kept wondering if anyone had at any point studied the rate at which slabs of the floor were allocated to the deceased, and thus developed slab allocation guidelines, as an exercise in capacity planning. This SysAdmin-ly wondering on my part bothered me more than the abundance of former humans, and I didn’t want to put up money for the proper tour, so I wandered my way out.
From there I wandered past Parliament, which also charges for admission. What kind of chintsy democracy is that? Congress has no admission fees, you just wander right in through the metal detectors and watch your government in action. I had a sit in an adjacent park, with a pleasing view across the Thames. I wandered across a bridge, hoping to find something different.
I found the Imperial War Museum, which was free, so I nipped in to get a bit of Imperial War. After getting kind of bored with that, I sat on a park bench next to a very big cannon, and shared some of my salty fried Air India snack food with some pigeons, favoring one plucky chap who was missing one foot, and was a toe short on the other.
I accompanied Duncan to the train station, where I let him rush off to work, while I looked around the news stands some. On the ride in, I got off at Clapham Junction, which boasted that it was Britain’s busiest train station. I took a bunch of pictures, and a bunch more where the train lets out at Waterloo to connect with the Underground, and the Eurostar. The camera subsequently ate my pictures.
I spent the morning bumming around the British Museum, which has a lot of very old stuff in it, but it didn’t really grab me. Instead, I spent some time relaxing outside, where there’s good people watching. More pigeons were fed, some girls admired, I got some pictures of a cat with a collar and a missing tail, who slinked around the tourists.
I found a place across the street where I could check e-mail. This was accomplished inside of half an hour, so I frustrated myself with Canon’s web site, which will let me fill out a form explaining my problem, and then tell me that I’ll receive an e-mail telling me how to contact technical support, if necessary. The e-mail told me that it couldn’t answer my problem automatically, and that I should return to the web site to explain the problem in fewer words. This of course, could then be escalated to technical support, perhaps, which would tell me that I was probably just doing it wrong, because I didn’t explain every last thing that I had done right, because I need to explain these things in fewer words. Argh!
I shot off a note to a couple of social mailing lists in hopes that someone had the capability of getting word to a human being at Canon as to how can I get my problem fixed. I was cut off of my hour right before I could send the message, so I put up the £5 for five hours of access.
From: Danny Howard <email@example.com> Subject: london
This funny British keyboard puts some keys in funny places.
I’m across from the British Museum, and hungry, but I found an hour of access for a modest two pounds.
My anecdotes, are that the English don’t have exits, but lots of signs every where that say WAY OUT, to which my San Francisco – influenced mind can say only, “Indeed: way out, man!”
The train system rocks. At … Waterloo today I took bunches of pictures, to add to some more train pictures I’d taken at something junction: busiest train station in britain. Yay, well, THE CAMERA ATE MY PICTURES AGAIN!! FRICKING CANON POWERSHOT!!
Other than that, and the high prices, I have no basis for complaint, as I have a gracious friend hosting my stay, and feeding me his vegetarian cuisine. Mmmm!!
Aaaah, what else, ah yes, there are stations where you must MIND THE GAP, and they’ll repeat this on a speaker, looped over, MIND THE GAP … MIND THE GAP … MIND THE BLOODY GAP YOU FUCKING TOURIST !!
And I think of the GAP store at Haight and Ashbury, back in Frisco, and I’m like, “Of COURSE I mind the GAP! I mind it considerably, fucking GAP!”
And I have to supress my instinct to WORK. I was looking at the free magazine and had to chew on the jobs postings, just because, you know, well, I’m only here for a week, but finding a job is a reflex I’ve acquired in this recession. :) And at Waterloo they were giving out free cans of Shark energy drink to solicit funds for World Wildlife Fund. Okay, sure, but they had SURFER DUDES telling you not to surf, because of the free sharks. I choked down the instinct to ask if they’d be around tomorrow, and could use a volunteer from actual California to hawk their cause.
Instead, I talked to a homeless dude selling papers, because he had too much desire to scratch for his living than take the dole, bless the welfare state. He said that he too had travelled the world, that was his thing, and in Japan they’ll hire nice English-speaking types to GO TO PARTIES, to mix with people, because Native English Speakers are COOL.
After a baguette, on the advice of my guidebook, I wandered to the National Gallery. Oh la la! I totally dug an older, but brilliantly-colored nativity scene, and wandered my way through the galleries, out into Trafalgar Square, which has nice fountains, and tourist crowds. I then wandered … that way, and as I turned a corner I saw a tall, skinny, orange-haired Asian dude whom I heard call out “Leave me alone!”
The lilt of that phrase left me to conclude that the tall, skinny orange-haired Asian dude, was actually a tall, thin, orange-haired Japanese Woman being tailed by an Italian Man. Well, that was my assessment, at least. He sort of wandered off, then she turned a corner, sat down on the ground, and he slowly approached her and sat down next to her. After a bit, she got up and sat twenty feet further on, and after a bit, he followed her. She looked depressed, like she was supposed to be touristing, but she was instead dragging a sick puppy around wherever she went. Augh!
Of course, it was entirely possible that the two were actually in a relaionship, so I wasn’t sure if I, the Nosey American, should get involved. “Excuse me, Ma’am, is this guy bothering you?”
The pushy American was ready for adventure, but reluctant to act unilaterally. I spied a family of middle-aged, well-dressed, dark-skinned blacks, that had two stocky gentlemen in their party. I asked the one’s assessment of the situation, suggesting that if a few of us went over there, the Pushy Italian would easily feel intimidated, and bugger off. He was an Englishman who was inclined to think that a woman in that situation would likely know the proper way to handle such a situation, and that the simplest explanation was that they were involved, but who knows? He was inclined to let them be.
Failing to enlist the support of my British Ally, I resolved that I’d keep an eye on them for a little while, and found a seat across the square to review my guide book. She sat with her head in her arms, as he patiently waited for further interaction, occasionally trying to take her hand, or touch her leg.
I’d read about Pushy Italian Men in the guidebooks, and how to handle them. I figured he may well be tailing naive, Shy Japanese Girls, and that if she was a Shy Japanese Girl, inclined not to make a fuss, or draw attention to herself, or be assertive, and all of that horribly sexist stuff that I have learned that Shy Japanese Girls are taught to abide by, then, well, they were at an impasse.
How to intervene? I thought of different scenarios. First was “Ah … don’t I know you? Yoriko-san! It’s been a long time! Say how’s your boyfriend, Ben, I haven’t heard from him in a while?”
That was too presumptious, I thought, and if I did have the right idea, the subterfuge may blow her mind even more. “Oh, great, yet another man, what now?” Duncan later allowed that if they were a legitimate couple, then implying that she had another boyfriend could very well break the camel’s back, and definately turn things ugly.
What about asking for directions? Nah. Maybe I’d be able to slip her a note and inquire if she was okay? That requires English, on her part, and she’s stressed out. Just walk up, all friendly, and note her discomfort, and simply ask is she doing okay? An invitation to confess that, well, actually, this guy is bothering her. Find another Japanese group and ask them to drop by and talk to her? “Hey, we’ve been looking for you,” and then get the scoop in Japanese, wandering off, if necessary, with their group.
Finally, I decided that the best bet was to lure him away. “Excuse me sir, could you come over this way a bit, to take a picture of me by this cannon, with your back to this young lady, who would now have the opportunity to slip off, if that is her desire?”
In the end, though, I simply doffed my cap at her a few times while she was looking my way, and he was not. Just a quiet sign that the guy at the far end of the square had his eye on the situation. In the end, she got up, they spoke, she wandered one way, he started to follow, she’d sit down, then she’d head the other way, ’til he followed, then she’d stop. They zig-zagged like this a couple of times until they exchanged a few more words, and she headed off in my direction, as he watched. She was coming directly towards me, maybe I’d been an excuse on her part, or an intimidating destination on his. Two-thirds of the way towards me, she banked, and headed through the tunnel to her Majesty’s gate, or whatever that was on the other side. I was more gratified that the situation had been resolved than disappointed that I didn’t get to speak with her, to find out if my assessment had been accurate. After a moment or two, the Pushy Italian still standing on the far side of the square, I followed through the tunnel. This might mark her as mine, in his eyes. I didn’t spot her on the far street. I hung out a little while, then headed back through the gate towards the park that I had previously been interested in getting to, passing, on my way, the Pushy Italian. We looked at each other for just a moment, as we were passing. I had anticipated antipathy, on his part, but saw only idle curiosity.
I took a picture of a group of German tourists, lounging contentedly in the park. I felt, once again, at home in my traditional tourist role.
I took the District line, which had really cool, old-school subway cars with wooden floors, over to Mansion House, and found my way across the Millenium Bridge to check out the Tate Modern, a huge building, that has modern art galleries on two of its six floors. In between galleries, I stopped at a cafe, overlooking the Thames, for tea. The Tate was a darned good time, and next to the Globe Theatre, which looked a little too busy for me to bother with.