In 1989, a Toronto folk-rock singer named Andrew Cash wrote a song called "Boomtown". The lyrics, in part, read:
I don't wanna live in this boomtown no more
I don't wanna judge my life by what I can't afford
I don't wanna live in this boomtown no more
When it's busting down my door
Walking through the Richmond district one day, I took a photograph of a mini-mural that really made it clear to me...I didn't have a job to tie me to San Francisco any more, and though I would really miss all my friends, maybe it was time, indeed, to go walk the stars. After a little more than five years of calling San Francisco my home, I decided to move back to my hometown of Toronto.
After initially planning a seven-day road trip, I ultimately decided to take the train. Amtrak turned out to be cheaper and much less stressful. It would be a four-day journey on two separate trains. The California Zephyr would take three days to travel from Emeryville to Chicago, where I'd spend one night, and then the International would take one day to travel to Toronto.
Top of "Introduction"
Emeryville CA - Emeryville Station
After lots of frantic packing -- you always have more shit than you think you do -- and a fabulous double-suprise party, I was finally all ready to go. The movers came to take away my seventeen (!) boxes and I packed up five (!!) bags of matched (!!!) luggage for the train ride.
Preston (pucky) and I stayed across in the East Bay with Patrick (pachooey), who was housesitting for Mike (M-n-M) and Jonathan (thefunk) while they were in New York, thus sparing us the agony of crossing the Bay Bridge in the morning.
Monday, October 30th started out grey and rainy as we three posed for a picture outside of the Emeryville Amtrak station. You can't see it very well, but the Amtrak sign behind Preston and I says "Satisfaction Guaranteed" :-) You can see it much better in this one, even though we look goofy in it.
Soon after Preston left, Amtrak announced that my train, #6, would be 1.5 hours late because they were waiting for the US Postal Service to attach some mail cars. As the rain stopped, I wandered outside to see the tracks that would soon take me away from California.
Patrick kept me company throughout the delay, surveying the crowd to see if there were any potential gay boys. We had our suspicions about one or two, and an older gay couple on their way to Texas identified themselves for us. Finally the train arrived and Patrick posed for one last picture outside of my sleeping car. I was on my way.
Top of "Emeryville"
On The Train
Yes, so this is "first class" on Amtrak. All in all, it's not so bad, even if a "Superliner Standard" turns out to be much smaller than the name might imply. After navigating what seems to be an impossibly narrow hallway, I make my way to my room on the first floor -- inauspiciously, it's room 13. The lavatories are just down the hall, and while unappealingly green-hued, they at least thought to put a small vase of flowers in.
The room has two reclining seats facing each other. These can convert into a bed, but I opted to keep them as seats so I could set up my laptop on the little table. Instead, I slept up above on a bunkbed that folded away during the days. I sat in the forward-facing seat and used the rear-facing seat to store some of my luggage. I was also amazed at how much use I got out of the really narrow (but really deep) closet tucked in next to the door.
My good friend Keith (hayden-) hails from Chicago, where they know from trains. He says that the distinctive perq of travelling by train (in the sleepers anyways) is the ability to take a shower on the train, and I have to agree. The shower room manages to fit in a small bench in the most economical of spaces. The single shower stall is even equipped with a grab-bar in case you're in there when the train lurches (and I was!)
My sleeper car was immediately adjoining the dining car. The meals were actually pretty tasty and they were all included in my fare. The train master was a fabulous black woman named Simona who kept all the passengers happy and the train running perfectly -- Way to go, girl! Adjacent to the dining car was the sightseer lounge, complete with refreshment bar and plenty of people enjoying the view through the observation windows.
Top of "On The Train"
Sacramento CA/Roseville CA/Colfax CA/American River Valley
With rain off and on throughout the first leg of the journey, it was still pretty dismal as we pulled out of the Sacramento Amtrak station. By the time we made it to the ranches and orchards of Roseville, however, the sun was beginning to shine on the landscapes and the llamas alike.On the approach to Cape Horn, the historic town of Colfax was getting wired for the new millennium with new telco cable being laid in. On the other side of Cape Horn, we climbed the rocky steppes high above the American River Valley. Here, you can see clouds being made high above the treetops. I was even lucky enough (and fast enough with the camera!) to catch a rainbow or two.
Top of "Monday Afternoon"
Soda Springs CA/Donner Pass CA/Reno NV
By late afternoon, we were up in the snowy Sierras as we passed the ski chalets of Soda Springs. The late afternoon sun lit up the landscape magnificently, touching the trees with reddish-gold and lighting the evening skies dramatically.
The cloud-capped ranges of the Donner Lake and Lake Tahoe areas were already familiar to me, having visited earlier in the year (visit the High Sierra Holiday site) with my friend Erik (erik). Still, it was breathtaking to see the lake beneath the pink-and-purple-tinged clouds at sunset. The colors only seemed to deepen as we approached the far end of the great glacial lake.
Dinner was served as night fell in the High Sierras. We were running almost two hours behind as we crossed the Nevada state line. The bright casino lights of the famed Flamingo Casino told us we'd reached the Biggest Little City In The World. Although we wouldn't be entering Mountain timezone until the Nevada/Utah state line, I set my watch one hour ahead so I would wake up in the right time zone, and stepped off to stretch my legs at the Reno Amtrak station before retiring for the evening.
Top of "Monday Evening"
Provo UT/Helper UT/Green River UT/Ruby Canyon UT
After a suprisingly restfull evening's sleep, I awoke on Halloween Day in Utah to find we were pushing 3 hours behind schedule. We'd gotten caught in a very heavy snowstorm -- the first big one of the season -- somewhere between Salt Lake City and Provo.
There was so much snow on the tracks that Amtrak had to send trucks from the appropriately-named town of Helper to clear the snow off the tracks. We were averaging maybe 3 mph because the snow prevented Amtrak from using electric switches -- for safety's sake, the crew made all the switches on the rails manually. We didn't know it then, but by the time we pulled into the Helper Amtrak station we would be almost 4.5 hours behind schedule.
Despite the blizzardy conditions, there were still some impressive photo opportunities through the Uinta National Forest, which includes the mountain peaks of Soldier Summit and Castle Gate. This part of Utah is home to some of America's coal resources, some of which is processed at the Willow Creek plant, which sits on a river near the town of East Carbon.
Well you can only take so many pictures of snow, so I took a little nap and when I awoke the landscape had changed dramatically from snowscapes to scrubland with a few lonely trees rising above the vegetation. Occasionally, there'd be a small stand of trees clustered pale yellow against the brown-grey bushes.
As we made our way into the Utah Canyonlands, towards Green River, the storm clouds gave way to brilliant sunshine and white puffy clouds. This desolate region of Utah is called "America's Atomic Warehouse" because of its rich uranium deposits, but even here, the reach of technology is not far away.
Crossing the Green River led us into the Ruby Canyon region that would take us across the state line into Colorado. Here, steep walls of rock rise at sharp angles on either side of the rails. Sheer cliff-faces tower above the green hills into the skies. Down below, on the canyon floor, the rocky terrain gradually gives way to the mighty Colorado River. The swift-moving river sweeps past majestic rock promontories throughout the canyon, including this picturesque trio of spires, carved by wind and water.
Top of "Tuesday Morning"
Grand Junction CO/Glenwood Springs CO/Colorado River Valley CO
Tuesday afternoon found us in the Rocky Mountain State of Colorado. We crossed the state line near a small trailer park community under bright blue skies that seemed to stretch on forever. Fifteen miles outside of Grand Junction is the little agri-chemical town of Fruita. No passenger rail stops there anymore, just the big transport trains taking the fertilizer products to garden centers across America.
The Gunnison and Colorado Rivers meet up in Grand Junction, where the historic "Pufferbelly Station" is being painstakingly restored. We took on a new crew and actually got to stretch our legs at the Grand Junction Amtrak station. This was also the last time my Sprint PCS phone worked with any degree of reliability! Although we'd made up a lot of time through the Canyonlands of Utah, we were still 2.5 hours behind schedule.
After leaving Grand Junction, we headed towards the Continental Divide. Our next stop, two hours later, was the historic frontier town of Glenwood Springs. Doc Holliday is buried here and legendary frontiersman Teddy Roosevelt loved to vacation here, staying at the Colorado Hotel (now the Hotel Denver) and enjoying the Yampa Hot Springs. Skiers and more chalet-bound types alike still cross the Glenwood Springs bridge today to visit the Glenwood Spa and enjoy the therapeutic waters.
Built on the site where the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers meet, Glenwood Springs is the jumping off spot for Aspen Park and the Snowmass ski areas. We leave the Glenwood Springs Amtrak station in the shadow of the the Glenwood Springs bridge, heading into the Colorado River Valley and the heart of the Rockies.
More sheer rock faces rise up on either side of the train through the Colorado River Valley, but the terrain here is more mountainous than that of the Ruby Canyon, and with more trees. The powerful Colorado River rushes past houses built on the riverbank, some perched precariously on the river's edge, others with steps and terraces leading down to the riverfront. A series of parks and recreation areas also dot the riverbanks.
Top of "Tuesday Afternoon"
Denver CO - Union Station
Pulling into Denver's Union Station was full of bittersweet memories for me. Two years ago I'd spent six months in Colorado, bookended by the murder of Matthew Sheppard on one end and the school shootings at Colombine at the other. All in all, it was not the best six months I'd ever spent. One of the only good things to come out of it, however, was my friendship with Andrew (TygR), a Coloradan who'd later move to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art College (and date another one of my friends!)
TygR has since moved back to Estes Park, CO and as I was scheduled to have a ten-minute stopover in Denver, I had hoped to meet up with TygR to give him a special gift. It would be the last time I'd get to see him in what could be a long time. As it turned out, we spent almost an hour in Denver, but alas, we were still running two hours late and TygR wasn't able stay and wait for my train to arrive. If I have one regret about this trip it is that I wasn't able to see TygR. If you're reading this, Andrew, I miss you and I love you lots!
Denver was also the departure point for someone I met on the train, a cute (but, alas, straight!) pharmacist that Patrick and I had checked out as far back as the Emeryville train station :o) Paul, who hates taking pictures, was headed for Wyoming where he works as a pharmacist in Cheyenne and lives with his (undoubtedly charming) girlfriend Jeanette in Laramie. I know he's probably reading this so I'll continue to embarass him by directing people to his website and also posting this picture of me and Paul taken in Union Station. :o) Oh, and here's another picture of Jolie and Paul, also taken in the station.
Isn't Jolie cute? Heh. She stayed on the train all the way to Chicago. Originally from Bend, OR ("It's right in the middle of the state"), Jolie has lived most recently in Sacramento CA but was packing up her things and starting life on her own in....Rochester NY, where she hopes to start bartending while she figures out what to do with herself next :o) Good luck and best wishes, Jolie! She took this picture of me, as well as this one, too.
Denver's Union Station is done in the stately tradition of the grand old train stations. The tall ceilings and large waiting rooms belong to another time, when going by train was "simply the civilized way of travelling." Even the modern additions are of a piece to the rest of the station.
Taking advantage of the long layover at the Denver Amtrak station, I walked around outside the station. Denver's LoDo, or "lower downtown" district was just the way I remember it -- although my memories aren't as blurry as the pictures....the blue and orange blurs in this photo are the lights of the Qwest Tower and Wynkoop Brewing Company, respectively. Maybe it was just Halloween spirits, but after only an hour in this city, I knew I was ready to leave Denver again before too many memories pulled at me. Tomorrow would be another day.
Top of "Denver CO"
Omaha NE/Creston IA/Osceola IA/Ottumwa IA
Wednesday morning. Somewhere in the middle of the night I'd crossed into Nebraska, November, and the Central timezone. The rolling farmlands of Nebraska's cornfields looked misty through the light morning drizzle as I sat down to breakfast. Passenger rail is enjoying a renaissance now and all throughout the system, Amtrak is restoring its stations. Omaha, Nebraska was for years the "Gateway To The West" for westbound pioneers crossing the Missouri River, and the grand train station there is undergoing one of the most extensive retrofits in the system.
Leaving the railyards that once belonged to the famous "Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe" lines, we soon cross the Missouri River into the Hawkeye State of Iowa. First stop is the little town of Creston where the Creston Amtrak station will be decomissioned after the historic station is reopened. Some 30 miles to the east, midway through the state, is Osceola, a small town that is the crossroads for travellers on the interstate heading north to the capital city of Des Moines.
The Great Plains of the midwestern states are often called "Big Sky Country" for the way the skies seem to extend beyond all imaginings. After taking some photos of the Iowan skies, I now understand what is meant by "Big Sky." Seventy-five miles further east is the Des Moines River where the town of Ottumwa has built a water plant right across from the Ottumwa Amtrak station. A commemorative fountain in the main plaza of the water plant is testament to the importance of irrigation here in the heart of the Iowan grainbelt.
Top of "Wednesday Morning"
Crossing the Mississippi
Galesburg IL/Princeton IL/Naperville IL
After lunch aboard the California Zephyr, we'd made up almost all our lost time as we approached the mighty Mississippi River. There's something mythical about the Mississippi...something about this, the longest river in the United States, that separates The East from The West. Gazing north to the single suspension bridge that links Burlington IA with the Illinois shore, I imagined the journey those rushing waters took from the headwaters of Minnesota, southwards to the Gulf of Mexico.The first stop in the Prairie State of Illinois is the home of US historian Carl Sandburg, Galesburg. We pulled into the Galesburg Amtrak station under brilliant sunshine and azure skies, right beside historic locomotives parked trackside to recognize Galesburg's historic status as a former crew base. It is here that my fellow travellers, the gay couple from Texas, disembarked to transfer to a motorcoach that would take them to Bloomington-Normal, where they'd take the Texas Eagle train back home to Austin.
Princeton, Illinois is just about half-way to Chicago from the state line. Another monument to the famous Burlington Route trains is here in this town settled by New Englanders in 1833. The rails in this part of the country lead through the heartland of classic midwest Americana. The farms and homesteads are like something out of Norman Rockwell. Just outside of the Chicago city limits is the suburb of Naperville, the last stop on the California Zephyr before its eastern terminus.
Top of "Wednesday Afternoon"
Two thousand, four hundred and thirty-six miles. Three days journey. Seven states, three time zones, and a million memories brought me to Chicago, Illinois, crossroads of American manufacturing and distribution. Wednesday night was unseasonably mild and warm as I made my way to the Lakeshore Days Inn on the shores of Lake Michigan. My room, #1517, was tastefully, if somewhat spartanly, appointed. A king-size bed,a small writing table with chairs, and the requisite color television cabinet filled out my room. The view east from my window included the Playboy Enterprises building and the twin towers atop the John Hancock Center beyond it.
I had arrived in Chicago only 20 minutes late, but after checking most of my luggage in the overnight lockers, I barely made it to my hotel in time to meet my friend Dan (Danimal) for dinner. We ate at the Rock Bottom Brewery, a restaurant I was familiar with from my days in Colorado. I met Dan last year when he was still attending Princeton University in New Jersey -- in fact I went to visit him there this past March. Now he's in first-year law school at the University of Chicago. We had lots to catch up on and after dinner, he and I walked around downtown Chicago for a bit before he had to go home early and pack for his flight to see his boyfriend the next day. Thanks for spending time with me Dan! Here's Dan with the Wrigley Building behind him, and me on the Michigan Avenue Bridge with the Chicago River in the background.
After making sure I knew how to get back to my hotel, Dan departed, heading home to Hyde Park. I decided to enjoy the warm weather and stroll Chicago's tony shopping district along Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile. The view looking west from the Michigan Avenue Bridge was picture-postcard perfect! Looking northeast to the Chicago Tribune Building, I started walking up North Michigan Avenue from the Wrigley Building. Past the Allerton Hotel, and on up to Tiffany's and Chicago Place at Huron St. At Superior St, I looked north towards the famous Water Tower.
Turning east at the Water Tower, I went past the Park Hyatt hotel to take a photo of American Girl Place...well with a name like that, who could resist? Circling back around the Park Hyatt, I perched on the median in the middle of North Michigan Avenue at Pearson. Filene's Basement to my left (with lensflare!) and Marshall Field on my right -- shopping paradise Chicago style!
I was pleased to discover that the Hancock Observatory in the John Hancock Center was open until midnight, giving me plenty of time to take in the views relatively undisturbed. I stepped into the elevator and 40 seconds (and 94 floors!) later, I was high above Chicago!! I took over a dozen pictures that I have stitched together to form panoramic views looking southeast, south, and west. I also took single pictures looking north on Lake Shore Drive, east towards the Navy Pier, and southwest at the Sears Tower.After descending the 1,000 feet back down to ground level, I turned my lens next to the Fourth Presbyterian Church across from the John Hancock Center. This fountain in the church courtyard bears the inscription "For the Earth shall be / filled with the knowledge / of the Glory of the Lord / As the waters cover the sea." The courtyard itself is enclosed by a cloister dedicated to the Daughters of the American Revolution. That green glow visible in the picture comes from a blazingly electric modern sculpture recently installed in the space fronting Michigan Avenue as a promotion for Shedd Aquarium.
Chicago is also home to Northwestern University and its Medical Center (Northwestern Memorial Hospital). Their twelve-floor Erie-Ontario Self Park Garage made a unique staging area for these photos of the John Hancock Center and the building at 680 North Lake Shore Drive -- also known as the headquarters of Playboy Enterprises. After a couple of hours walking through downtown Chicago, I was tired and ready for sleep -- at least I had a real-sized bed this night! My next train, the International, was due to leave Chicago's Union Station the next morning at 9:30 and I still had to get the rest of my luggage out of the lockers! Reluctant to leave the glittering lights of the Magnificent Mile, I turned east and headed back to my hotel. Someday, I will return to the bright lights of Chicago.
Top of "Chicago IL"
Chicago IL - Union Station
Thursday, November 2nd started in pouring rain. I awoke at 7am to the strains of Lisa Stansfield's version of Cole Porter's "Down In The Depths (on the 90th Floor)":
With a million neon rainbows burning below me
And a million blazing taxis raising a roar
Here I sit above the town
In my pepillated gown
Down in the depths...on the ninetieth floor....
The breezy jazzy melody masked a melancholy that perfectly matched my mood on this, my last day in the United States. Today I'd be boarding a train that would carry me back to my hometown of Toronto. Five years later, the prodigal son returns.
After an express check-out and a rain-slicked cabride back down to Union Station, I manage to retrieve my luggage from overnight storage with an hour to spare before my departure time. Chicago, like many cities in the East, has a history steeped in the railroads, and Chicago's Union Station is truly impressive in its scale and grandeur. A receiving hall links the newer, more modern train plaza with the original building. The great hall (seen here in panorama) is astounding as much for its monumental scale (complete with statuary of Pallas Athena) as for its attention to detail, such as in these lamps and columns.
Top of "Union Station"
Leaving Chicago/Michigan/Crossing Into Canada
The International route is a 13.5 hour journey that dips around the bottom of Lake Michigan and then northeast across the Rust Belt of the Michigan heartland to Port Huron, at the southern end of Lake Huron. From there, it will cross into Canada at Sarnia, Ontario. At the border, the American Amtrak train crew switches with a Canadian VIA-Rail train crew. For most travellers, this really means only one thing: real beer when the club car re-opens!
As we pulled out of the Chicago railyards, the rain let up briefly. I saw a very different Chicago as the train crossed into Chicago's southside. Here in the west 20s, near Chinatown, the city seemed greyer, closer perhaps to its industrial roots. The neighbourhoods here seemed a world away from the skyscrapers and bright lights of downtown, but there was a quiet unscrubbed beauty to them all the same. Further along the line, we roll past the empty spectacle of an off-season Comiskey Park, silent parking lots filled with rain; the home of the White Sox but today, the boys of summer aren't home.
The brief respite in weather soon ends. Sixteen miles away from Chicago, we cross into the Hoosier State of Indiana under dark skies and heavy rain. The train hugs the edge of Lake Michigan, swaying in the howling winds, turning slightly northwards. At the Michigan state line, I set my watch forward -- Eastern timezone once again. First stop in the Great Lakes State is Niles, the oldest community in Michigan with a history dating back more than 300 years. From there we went on to Kalamazoo, where the Kalamazoo Amtrak station boasts some particularly peculiar art.
The industrial town of Battle Creek (home to Kellog's and Kraft, among others) was next, with its decidedly 70s-post-modern Amtrak station. An hour's worth of travel or so after Battle Creek brought us midway through the state to its capital city, Lansing-East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. The Upper Grand Watershed provides some of Michigan's prettiest scenery along the riverfront. Halfway between the state capital and the auto-industry city of Flint is the town of Durand, whose Amtrak station is also home to the Michigan Railway Museum. Michael Moore's pseudo-documentary film "Roger & Me" put the town of Flint on the map with its incisive examination of the effect of that town's declining auto industry on its largely blue-collar residents.
The International route serves mainly border-jumpers, binationals who commute to and from Canada and the United States across "the longest undefended border in the world". Among my travelling companions, I was the only one returning home permanently. Everyone else was either visiting from the States or Canadians working/studying abroad going home on a short visit. I suppose I envied them for being on holiday and I suppose they envied me for going home. Night fell quickly and darkly as we idled in Port Huron, waiting for CN-Rail's freight trains to clear the tracks. Still, I disembarked in Sarnia to alight on Canadian soil. It felt distantly familiar to see the Canadian flag flying, like seeing the face of an old relative. By the time we pulled out of the Sarnia VIA-Rail station, we were running an hour behind, but somehow it didn't matter. I was home now.
Top of "Thursday"
Thanks to everyone who made my journey home so memorable; to Doras for bringing the magic of the railroads alive; Paul and Jolie for taking the journey; Benjamin for the art; Simona and Dave and the entire crew of the California Zephyr; to Dan in Chicago for all the good times; to Rebecca for sharing the civics lesson; Saurin and Mujahid -- Rebecca was right, nothing brings people together like customs agents and cigarettes; and to Mehdy Z, you pimp-dadee, keep on bonecrushin!
For those of you who scrolled down this far, here are the bonus pictures of funny things you see on the outside of Amtrak trains:
two inch shoes : cutout cock : jack here : lift and jack