Postcards and Perceptions in Salt Lake City

Dear Haney on the Train Nation:

I have some momentus news. I found America. It resides at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

I kid. At least, not my ‘merica.

But I do have news: unfortunately, there will be no postcards coming from SLC. Because I missed the train in California and had one less day in SLC, because I spent Saturday up in the mountains, and because SLC practically shuts down on Sunday except for bars and the Mormon headquarters, I was not able to find any.

Imagining I had the resources to make my own postcards, I came up with some ideas.

Salt Lake City:

-If you don’t climb mountains and you’re not a Mormon, we wonder why you why the hell you came here.

-The widest streets in America.

-Have one kid for every mountain on the horizon.

-It’s all about the powder.

-Where beer shall never be stronger than your faith in Kolob.

-Yeah right, Brigham Young would never scalp an Indian.

-Can we have your address and phone number, you know, just to chat some time?

-Space Jesus.

He lives – in space!

For serious though, Salt Lake is a beautiful city. It sits in a wide, flat valley with 10,000-foot peaks of jagged granite and quartzite rising up on all sides. Every time you go outside those mountains remind you why Brigham Young chose to plop his people down there back in 1846. Continue reading

The Blame Game

With so many trains to catch, it was inevitable that I’d miss one. Yesterday morning I didn’t make it across the bay from The City (San Francisco) to The Town (Oakland) in time to catch the 9:10 train toward Chicago.

After 40 mintues of running in frantic circles around the Market District, I tried to hail a cab to take me over. “Can you get me to Emeryville Amtrak for a 9:10 train?”

The driver looked at the time. “You’re not going to make it. There’s too much traffic.”

Anyone up for an episode of Full House?

I moved to the side and fumed, not sure whether to be angry Amtrak for not routing the train through San Francisco proper but making passengers load onto shuttle busses out of the city, at the shuttle bus driver who dropped me off three days earlier and pointed haphazardly to the Amtrak bus stop (“It’s over there, in front of Bloomingdale’s”), at my smart phone navigation app for directing me to the wrong side of the block, or at the shuttle bus driver who didn’t stop when I tried to wave him down after finally finding the Amtrak bus stop.

In reality, though, I could only be mad at myself for not waking up an hour earlier, for not figuring out exactly where the stop was, for not listening to my pal Chris Krohne, who I was staying with, when he told me just to take the BART under the bay. Continue reading

Dear America: Look to Portland

A scene from the street festival.

If the purpose of this trip were to find a place to move after graduation, I would’ve just stopped in Portland. The city is alive with color from the plentiful wildflowers, sunflowers, and hydrangas. The youth appreciate Americana, gathering to watch folk bands with instruments like accordions, mandolins, and even kazoos. Even more appealing, the bulk of the businesses are local and independent, each with its own flare. I didn’t see a Target, McDonalds, or Wal-Mart there in five days.

This morning I had coffee, an egg and bacon sandwich, and a fresh doughnut in a cafe built inside an old wooden house. Yesterday I ate lunch in a place called Por Que No? which sections off its patio with discarded front doors. The grilled cheese truck around the corner from my friends Pat and Marika’s place utilizes a double-decker bus for a dining room. As I walked by it one morning I waved to a little girl in the top deck with her face smooshed up against the glass.

She was up in there.

Portlandians make use of the goods lying around them. Instead of hauling in tons of new materials to build up their city, they make do with what’s already there. They practice sustainability, minimalism, and even conservatism in that they attempt to conserve resources, conserve the beauty of the mountainous countryside, conserve a way of life that celebrates individualism over homogenized mass consumerism.

Food truck pods appear all over the city. One open lot might contain eight trucks with eight different genres of food. And bicycles rule the road. I took a five-hour bike ride yesterday up Mt. Tabor, along the Willamette River, into downtown, and back to Pat and Marika’s. Cars yielded to me, waiting for me to pass before turning, always conscientious of my presence and my safety.

So why doesn’t the rest of America look to Portland as an beacon for what we could become, a model for preserving regional culture as natural resources dwindle and mass-consumerism white washes our greatest cities? Partly because Portland doesn’t want the attention. The more people discover this gem of a city, the greater the chances Wal-Mart, Target, and McDonalds will move in and dilute their forward-looking, individualistic culture.

Gearing up for an epic bike ride.

And there’s the paradox: if I had halted my journey in Portland, would I assimilate smoothly into their city, or represent another step toward the globalization of American cultural identity?

Either way, I’m back on the train and making my way down to San Francisco where I’ll stay for three nights then head over the mountains to Salt Lake City, Denver, Austin, and New Orleans.

Traveling Backward through America Part II

Yesterday I arrived in Portland into the seedy area around the train station. A girl asked me for $4 toward a train ticket for her and her boyfriend to go home to Boise. I gave her two dollar bills and regretted it as soon as I saw her scuzzy boyfriend come out and give her a high five. I saw a group of 10 men getting tickets for drinking in public. Someone offered to sell me some herb. While I waited for the bus, a passing gutter punk blew smoke in my face.

But I made it to Pat and Marika’s pace in a much nicer part of Portland and have since had three great meals and a few $2.50 pints of craft beer. I think I’m gonna like this city.

On the train here from Seattle, I sat in the lounge car and found myself in conversation with a 61-year-old woman bemoaning the decline of America. “Corporate interest runs the country. It used to be great. A Bachelor’s degree used to mean something. Now they’ve sent the jobs away, sold us downriver. Obama’s a huge disappointment and Romney scares the hell out of me. Republican, Democrat, it’s all the same. Too bad for your generation. It’s so hard now to even find a job.”

You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure. But the conversation got interesting when she confessed to leaving the Mormon church four years earlier. “Why are you going to Salt Lake City?” she asked. “They’ll run you right out of town. Don’t give ’em your name in Temple Square.”

Oh my what have I stumbled upon?

Continue reading

Sights and Sounds of the Pike Place Market

Pike Place Market provides a smorgasbord for the senses. The smells of boiled and stewed seafood, Spanish and Asian specialties, and flowers, herbs and spices drift through the long hallways. Pink salmon and red grouper sit on ice before a crowd of international visitors while neon lights shine overhead. Patrons run their fingers through fruit stands where peddlers push peach slices in front of you, in the shops people rifle through shelves of old signs and records and hold hand-made statues and trinkets up in contemplation. Some raise spoonfulls of ciapporo–an Italian seafood stew with a tomato broth–while others chew on croissants and skewered meats.

But the sounds of the market make Seattle ring like no other city. Besides overhearing conversations in a litany of languages, you’ll encounter skilled street musicians entertaining the steady stream of market goers and watching their guitar cases fill with dollar bills.

An old man in boots, a leather vest, and a wide-brimmed hat plays guitar and sings about New Orleans in a voice like Louis Armstrong’s. Four young men with mandolins and acoustic guitars play an eerie Americana with an off-balance beat, arresting shoppers with their pleading rhythms. A cellist contorts herself around her instrument as she pulls a long vibrato tone.

In this video, see the jangly piano man who wheels his workplace into position each day and uses his visibility for polemics. Around the corner at the Seattle Museum of Art, a large black shadow bangs down a hammer ad infinitum. I heard the echo of a mournful accordion for two days before sniffing out the sound. The antic accordionist rewards my efforts with a look back into the camera.

Adventures in Glacier National

You’ll probably want to turn the volume down before playing this–lots of wind up there.

Hiking to Scenic Point at 7,500 feet overlooking the Continental Divide, afraid the wind would blow me off the mountain but exhilerated by the view; a friend I met on the train and in the hostel; views from the red bus tour along Going-to-the-Sun Road; the mesmerizing flow of water.

Traveling Backward Through America

I’m finding out that travel bloggers live in the past. Especially on a trip like mine, where destinations roll by like cherries in a slot machine, experiences from days ago linger until I can get them down, post them to the blog.

When I set out I figured I’d write about each city on the train ride out of town and be ready to focus on the next. But as I mentioned, the internet tethering on my phone has been spotty at best, and anyway I meet the most fascinating people on the train. We talk and then I run to my notebook to jot down what they said. Sometimes I even sleep.

Greetings from Seattle. Such a diverse market and, at least to my mind, it exists in three time zones.

Even now, as I sit in a Seattle Starbucks, comments on Chicago, adventures in Glacier National, and characters from the Amtrak juggle through my mind. The memories accompanied me while I found my hostel, toured the market, wandered the harbor. In each moment I look around me and behind. Continue reading

The Smart Ones, Aye?

That view I told you about.

I cheated in Michigan. I got in a car, and I went to Canada. Those acts were neither trainey nor American. But the former got me to a wedding on time, and the latter gave me a great view of the Detroit skyline. Sometimes it’s better to break the rules.

My buddy Alec flew up from Tampa (which he calls the “Cultural Siberia”), rented a car, and picked me up in Ann Arbor, a charming little city an hour east of Detroit where our friend Rob lives. The three of us used to row together on the crew team in high school. Rob put me and Alec up and took us out barhopping.

Is there a better way to find America than to barhop in each of its cities?

Don’t answer that.

Ann Arbor is a really cool town. The University of Michigan is interspersed among houses and businesses within the city, and its downtown features numerous coffee shops and bakeries, a grocery co-op, nice bars and restaurants, wide streets lined with trees and flowers, and handsome wood and brick buildings. Continue reading