Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sunrise – Sunset

sunset in Whitefish, MT - June 28, 2007
I’ve seen some interesting sunrises and sunsets in this trip so far. On several of the mornings there has been a bit of an overcast blocking the actual sunrise, but you still get the idea.

My circadian rhythms are all screwed up with the time zone changes and the fact that we are experiencing 18-19 hours of sunlight. It must be like living in Alaska with the midnight sun!

I find myself still awaking with the East Coast even though that means 5:30 am – and by 10:00 pm, no matter where we have been, I find it easy to fall immediately asleep. My best plan is to simply try to figure out how many hours I have been in bed, and when I reach 7.5 hours, its time to get up. I think I might be a little sleep deprived. You betcha!

There was a particularly beautiful sunset to behold in Whitefish, MT. I was figuring this might be the place we would catch the final light of the day, so I was very concerned when I calculated that we were running about an hour and forty minutes late as we approached the Rockies. Fortunately, Whitefish is far enough west in the Mountain Time Zone that sunset was not until 9:05 pm. We caught it perfectly. Sorry, the quality of the photos are not the best.

Choo Choo Charlie

As someone whose interest in railroad trains goes back to age five when Santa delivered my first Lionel set, I must say I was very much looking forward to this leg of the trip. But never in my wildest imagination did I believe it would it be so breathtaking.

The Empire Builder moved up and down the passes effortlessly and I found the best viewing location was looking out the rear window in the door of our sleeper car. Not only did this provide a better panorama of the view, but the window in the door is not protected by sun-blocking tint so the colors and dynamics of the scenery were all the better.

Through curve after curve we moved gliding beside river creeks and cascades, our tracks closely followed by the US Route 2. At times the highway would appear on the left and then on the right – it must be a terrific drive.

One of the neatest features of going through these winding mountain passes was being able to see the front of the train ahead as it bent around the sharp curves only to disappear around a bend or into a tunnel. This can be accomplished from my sleeping car – it helps being in the last of 12 cars. But the view from my rear deck was still the best and I ran my camera in video mode to catch (sorry - I closed the YT account due to spam. If you want to see the videos, drop me a line) as much as possible. When I get home I will consider trying to figure out a way to reverse the direction of the “film” so as to create the illusion of being in the front of the train and taking the vantage point of the “best seat on the train” the engineer. What a job!

The Empire Builder makes two more scheduled stops in the park – West Glacier and Whitefish (not technically in the park, but clearly in the mountains) – and Essex, an unscheduled stop. The Essex stop only happens when some one is going to or leaving a lodge, the Izaak Walton Hotel, located there. There is only a bench and an outhouse marking the stop; the passengers are met by a red van. A few seconds later we can see the Hotel and a bunch of their guests are out front waving at the train.

In all too short a time, we have descended though the pass and make our stop in Whitefish. This is a scheduled smoker’s stop and I go outside in search of the best sunset photo.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Editor's Note

My apologies that it has taken a week to get the blog entries of my trip uploaded. I have been journaling the trip in its entirety, but have not had access to the Internet until today - at my hotel in Portland, OR.

I have posted 14 entries so far which - in typical blog style - go in reverse chronological order. So if you want to follow the journey in the correct sequence, scroll down to the bottom of the the page and read the entries from bottom to top.

I am still editing the last few entries and hope to have them posted by tomorrow; and I will continue to the journaling throughout my visit here and the return passage.

I have posted a very few of my photos so far and added a few links here and there in the blogs. I will go back and update these in the next few days and will add more photos and perhaps a few videos to YouTube.

It has clearly been an adventure! Stay tuned!


Rocky Mountain High

I have been reminiscing about life 25 years ago, when I drove cross-country for the first (and only) time and how I remember that the Rocky Mountains were a particularly magnificent sight. I can remember somewhere about 100 miles east of Denver you could get the first glimpse to the tops of the mountains on the horizon. And then it seemed to take hours to get to the base of the mountains.

I also recalled that when we drove back across southern Montana there were miles and miles of the “true Big Sky” country with these fantastic mountains interspersed between flat valley floors that would extend 70 – 100 miles. As you descended through a mountain pass you could look ahead to the east and see the location of the next pass. Between you and that pass lay 70 miles of flat, dead-straight roadbed. It was not a matter of miles but rather a matter of how long it took to get from one pass to another.

Well, northern Montana is nothing like this.

I was in the dining car having a wonderful conversation with Mary and Dan, two teachers from a private prep school in St. Paul, MN who are chaperoning a group of fifteen year olds on a trip to Glacier National Park. The couple has been doing this same trip for years and knew some of the dining car wait-staff personally. This was their second trip this summer; they had been out here just two or three weeks ago.

Dan had worked as a ranger here and his description of the park increased my curiosity and desire for more. This might be worth a return trip at some point.

By this evening we had been looking at flat and increasingly dryer terrain for 15 hours and it was getting pretty boring. There was a clear sense among my fellow travelers that we better get there soon – or else.

I finished dinner around 6:30 as the train started moving due west from Cut Bank. Dan explained that this was one of the largest Indian reservations in the state and that the scenery didn’t really offer much until we got further down the road. He was right.

Somewhere out east of Browning we got the first peek at the peaks and the passenger compartments began to buzz with excitement and anticipation. Unlike my experience 25 years ago we got to the mountains a lot quicker than I had expected; perhaps a combination of our 80 mph speed and the fact that the terrain is simply different here led to this phenomena. Then again time seems to move more quickly the older you get.

The landscape changed most abruptly as we climbed the foothills. There were actually very few foothills per se; we were almost instantly “in the mountains.”

I snapped as many photos as I could – hoping that the movement of the train would not blur all of them.

We stopped at the east side of the park first at a location called East Glacier and I could see the stately old lodge off in the distance surrounded by a legion of 1930’s vintage tour busses painted a bright red. Someone was polishing the hood of one apparently getting ready to drive over to the station to meet our train.

I watched with some jealously as Dan and Mary and their brood of teenagers exit the train and head toward the station. Nice life; nice spot.

You Can Have Her

Here is a quick message to Verizon Wireless (VZW) – great job getting coverage all over the prairies of North Dakota. I got better reception in the middle of nowhere – sorry North Dakotans, but you must admit that this place is pretty remote – than in Augusta, ME. Granted you can probably put a tower in Minot and cover 90% of the state, but I really am getting GREAT coverage.

Crossing the boarder into Montana and VZW is nowhere to be found. We go for hours with a limited roaming signal and then some places with one bar or no service. This happens through most of the state until you reach the Empire Builder’s mid-point coaling station. Why here, why in Havre, MT. The answer is simple; they got the best VZW in the state!

Seriously, check out Google and find out about this place. It is after all Montana’s eight largest city with a population of 9,600 souls. It is also the place where the Empire Builder chooses to re-fuel and we were able to get off the train and roam around the station and take some photos.

But most importantly, I was able to make and receive some phone calls to tell my friends and family my location.

As you can see by the photo, the origin of the name of this is in dispute, but apparently has something to do with a fight between two French Canadians over a woman.

Where the Heck Are We?

It appears that a bunch of Europeans settled this part of Montana; some settlers may have been from Maine.

In the last few hundred miles we have passed through Glasgow and Malta and are on our way to Zurich and Harlem (that lady I had dinner with last night would have been impressed). It will be interesting to see if there are any mountains in Zurich, MT and African Americans in Harlem, MT.

We have also passed through Saco – which I am sure is not pronounced the same was as we in Maine pronounce it - and, Bowdoin. I did not see any indications of a college in Bowdoin. And the only river in Saco was the Milk River – which must get its name from the color of the water – chocolate milk!

Going Backwards and Amtrak Elbow

Now that mine is last car on the train; and my roomette the last at the rear of the car, I have a special reserved viewing spot at the back door of the train right next to my room. From this vantage point you can view all of Montana - in reverse. One passenger came back here from some other part of the train and told me I had discovered the second best view on the train. He appeared jealous of my good fortune.

Now, the observation car is nice and you can see quite a bit, but this spot is more private and quieter, and so far I have only had to share it with a few people – others “in-the-know.”

The ICD-10 will need to add a classification for a new affliction – Amtrak Elbow. Technically it is not an affiliation of the elbow but of the forearms. The impairment/injury comes from constantly banging the backs of your forearms against various parts of the train as you attempt to move from one end of the train to the other. While walking though the sleeper car center “hallway” it is easiest to simply bounce off the walls – quite literally – and use your forearms as bumpers.

Amtrak Elbow is exacerbated by sleeping in a roomette. The Amtrak folks have strategically placed various parts of the roomette chair in locations that when you roll over, or more commonly are rolled over by the action of the train, causes your forearms to smash into these hard, non-impact absorbing chair parts and results in soft tissue damage. I was so unaware of this affliction prior to this trip. Had I known, I would have brought some football equipment. I should write a paper for JAMA. Hopefully the damage is not permanent. I’ll keep you advised.

When I was talking to the guy who came to the back of the train and commented about my view, I mentioned that I would be returning back on the Empire Builder. He asked how long I was going to be in Portland and I told him five days. He said that’s just enough time to recover.

Do you suppose he also suffers from Amtrak Elbow?

Badlands and Hebrew National

I’ve spent the morning just enjoying the passing countryside and chatting with my fellow passengers. We went through a section that looked like the backdrop for a John Ford movie. I noticed a reference to The Badlands on a sign we pass, but I think this must be the northern most reaches of that famed place. It was pretty as the Missouri River has begun following us – or we, it.

We passed through the town of Wolf Point, MT located in the Ft. Peck Indian Reservation. Apparently the Bureau of Indian Affairs located two tribes on the land – two tribes that have been warring for past three centuries – very clever. The only relatively prosperous thing in Wolf Point was the Indian Casino. We’ve passed a number of them on this stretch.

I stopped down in the club car and had a hot dog and root beer for lunch. We are now in Mountain Time, but I am not sure where my stomach is. I wasn’t real hungry and the hot dog did the trick. And yes, the club car features microwaved Hebrew National hot dogs, just like you can get in Brooklyn. The only bad side was the French’s mustard; you gotta have Gulden’s with a HN dog!

I chatted with another poor soul in the club car. He is traveling from Meriden, CT to Shelby, MT on Amtrak. He was on the same train from Springfield, MA and the Lake Shore Limited from Albany. He’s riding coach and told me hasn’t slept since leaving Connecticut. He was anxiously trying to find a signal on his cell phone so he can call his folks and arrange for a pickup. His service provider, one I have never heard of, was not providing a signal. BTW, I had wonderful Verizon Wireless service all of the way across North Dakota. That ended with the move across the boarder into MT. Now I am roaming and have one bar. I’ve turned the phone off and put in on the charger. Maybe I will get a VZW signal when we get to East Glacier.

The young man tells me his parents left Connecticut several months ago quite suddenly to get away from the violence, and moved to Helena, MT. I think there must be safer places a lot closer to Connecticut, but to each his own. Mom and Pop headed out there without jobs or any prospects. The most economical way for son to get there is via train and have the folks drive three hours up from Helena to pick him up. When I see him later in the day he still has not gotten the phone to work.

I ran into Boyd again. He and his wife is doing fine. He told me the lady running the snack bar in the club car used to work at South Station in Boston; she recognized him. Small world.

Lunch with Sanjaya, Jr.

I failed to make a reservation for breakfast and had considered skipping this meal altogether. After a quick shower in a space that was about the same size as the one on the LSL, I dress and journey back to the dining car. It’s about 9:30 so I figure the crowd should be ebbing. Jen the dining car chief lets me in without the reservation seats me with a vegan family of three from New Jersey. They are obviously of Indian or Pakistani decent and I learn they have been in NJ for three years, are taking a month to see as much of the USA as they can, and are reconsidering returning to native Bombay. Dad does most of the talking for the family, although their nine year old son is rather talkative and is obviously interested in social studies. They have traveled by auto to Chicago, are taking the Empire Builder to Seattle, then driving to Vancouver, BC, then a train to San Francisco, rental car to Salt Lake City and Yellowstone and I think flying back. I give them some ideas of places to see and let them know that we should start to see some interesting landscape when we get to Montana.

The little boy has a bright smile and a thick head of curly black hair, so I throw caution to the wind and ask if any asks him if is he Sanjaya, Jr. Laugher follows from Mom and Dad; Junior is beaming. I suggest they capitalize on this looks, get some head shots made and start signing autographs. Dad looks interested. We bid farewell and I’m sure they are still talking about the strange man from Maine.
Day Three – I think

I could be a farmer, ‘cause I have a way
With plants and I make grow well so they say.
And I could be a-plowing this rocky old field
With a broken down plow-horse that I bought on a deal.

And no one works harder than the farmers and fools
And you can’t learn these lessons in your books or your schools
Just take what she’ll gives you and leave all you can
‘Cause a man could be worst than be one with the land.

And today as I wonder what’s waiting for me
I look to the hills and what they means to me.

These are the words (a Dave Mallet song) that I hear in my head this morning as I looked out the window at the lush flat plains of North Dakota. With the “sun barely risen,” I am conscious of the fact that although my watch says it is 5:30 am, it is really 6:30, at least according to my circadian rhythm.

I find the coffee pot at the end of the hall is full and hot. I also notice that some time during the night the last car, a coach, has disappeared and taken all of its passengers with it. I can only surmise that they we jettisoned in Minneapolis/St.Paul where we stopped around 11:00 pm.

I “turned in” – an expression that takes on literal meaning in this particular conveyance – and had dozed off when the train arrived in St. Paul/Minneapolis. I had hoped Garrison Keillor would have been standing on the platform to welcome us - even Guy Noire would have been a welcome sight. But, after going thorough what looked like a relatively large city – tall buildings, etc – the railway station was rather pedestrian. At least on my side of the train which for some reason seems to always be on the wrong side when it comes to stations in the larger thoroughfares.

I understand Prairie Home Companion a little better being out here. This really is Middle America. Homes here are modest and the framed crossroads that carve out the center on each community are classic in their simplicity and grace. Prosperity is relative here.

The prairie looks lush this season with some large puddles still filling the fields and providing healthy habitats of bugs for the plentitude of birds that are gathering their breakfast. And as though framing a Winslow Homer painting, there are one or two mallards strategically placed in each water feature.

As I got out of my roomette to investigate, we were passing through Merrifield, ND, a suburb of Grand Forks. Grand Forks must be a large metropolis; they have at least one traffic light that can be seen from the train.

I have attempted to travel to the dining car and find it full. Americans love their breakfast. I guess it was bad timing on my part. But I’ve had my coffee, so I am set. Now perched in the observation car, I have a view of the outside and inside – this is a busy spot with the multitudes passing through. It is a bit noisy and there is the chattering of people and the occasional child crying.

There are I think five coach cars still attached to Empire Builder. It really amazing to see the scores of people who have camped out in these cars. Families traveling with children still tucked in their blankets and curled three to a seat – ah to be able to sleep like these. As I make my way to the back of the train, there are still many people sound asleep.

Speaking of sleep, last night was decent. There were a couple of times when we hit a big bump and I was aroused from dreamland, but generally the ride was smooth and I slept more hours than last night.

Mad Dash

Well the short story is – we made it!

The long story is much more involved.

At lunch the rumor mill was suggesting that the engineer had somehow made up for lost time and we would somehow get into Chicago in time for everyone to make their connections. I was planning on visiting with my cousin Ralph, who works in Chicago for perhaps a bite to eat – at least a little visit. Ralph had met me in Chicago last year when I traveled by Amtrak to attend a convention. He was eager to meet the train and give me a brief tour before I had to be on the Empire Builder departing at 2:15 pm. According to the schedule there should have been a four and a half hour layover.

As the morning progressed and we determined we were four and then five hours late, I called Ralph to alert him that there were several possibilities: 1) we would arrive in just enough time for me to get to the next connecting train, 2) we would somehow get in in-time for a very brief visit, and 3) I would miss my connecting train and be shanghaied in Chicago for at least 24 hours.

I think Ralph hoped for number three and would settle for number two. Number one was what happened.

When we got to Gary, IN, I knew we were about 30 minutes outside of Union Station. I called Ralph again and told him the situation and headed for the station. I had my bags all packed and as the train came to a stop at 1:55, I was the first one off the train and making the mad dash toward the gate. Several Amtrak employees directed my travel to the awaiting train located on Track B at, you guessed it, the other end of the station.

Scanning left and right as I moved quickly through the crowd I did not see Cousin Ralph anywhere. I climbed into my sleeping compartment #9 at 2:02; the Empire Builder left nineteen minutes later at 2:21 pm. I called Ralph to apologize for the mad dash. He was sympathetic and we hope to connect on the return leg of my trip.

A little more than 90 minutes later and we are in Milwaukee, the home of Miller High Life. I take a picture of world headquarters and wonder if they have an Arnold Brandt wing.

Milwaukee still looks a little tired – I was here 25 years ago, but there is a fair amount of construction and the word is Chicagoans are heading there en masse for the lower rents.

Dinner tonight is at 5:30 for me. We were required to have a reservation for a particular seating – a good idea. I am seated with a Judge from Minnesota, a Black woman from Harlem, and a grandmother from central Illinois. We talk about the weather and Brooklyn, and rents, and our destinations. The judge is the surprise. I would never have guessed his occupation. He looks a little like the actor William Hurt and I keep thinking I know him. He has five daughters and six grandchildren and he looks to be about my age. He tells us that we are in for a treat as the Empire builder would soon find the Mississippi River and Judge John is right.

Some place north of Wisconsin Dells we cross the river and then follow the western bank for a couple of hours. The scenery gets better and better with river boats and pleasure craft and many camps and McMansions along the shore line. One can only figure property in this locale is at a premium since some of the camps appear to cling to a very thin strip of land between the rails and the water.

The towns along this stretch are interesting and appear vibrant. There is the Fastnail Company in Winona that seems to be doing well.

The sun is setting and I get some great shots of the river and the orange sky. Soon it is too dark to see the river and can only see the lights of the towns ahead dotting the shoreline. I look forward to the return trip and seeing more of this locale in daylight.

I settle in to my room and watch The Untouchables on DVD. It seems fitting, having just left Chicago, to view this movie and I’ll probably dream about gangsters and prohibition.

Sad Stations

One of the more interesting aspects of this trip is the range of station facilities on the Amtrak line. Ranging from the elegance, already spoken about South Station, the facility in Albany is also quite exquisite. And having been in Chicago’s Union Station before, I know what a wonderful place it is. But many of the stops along the way are pretty sad. Springfield, MA is particularly ugly and Cleveland is also pretty sad. Both these stations look like they had been grand places in bygone years. Now the multiple cover “tracks” are in great disrepair, or abandoned together. In Cleveland there is a rather simple and functional brick building which is in sharp contrast to the Cleveland Browns stadium and Rock n”Roll Hall of Fame building which grace the beautiful lakefront. I would think that there would be a fair amount of passenger train traffic running through Cleveland, but apparently they don’t care what the station looks like. Contrast this with the excitement and civic pride that has gone into the planning of the new train stations along the Downeaster line. Strange.

The saddest site today was in Sandusky, OH where two young people got on our train. They had been waiting since 3:00 am and had reservations for another train that apparently did not stop. They were only going to Toledo, the next stop about an hour down the rail and were going to catch a bus to Detroit, their home. They carried a number of odd bags with their belongings and paid for their tickets in cash. Sandusky is one of those very sad train stations as is Toledo. I bid them farewell in Toledo and wish them the best. Traveling is never easy and down right miserable if you’re poor.

Last year when I took this route, we slept through Cleveland, Sandusky and Toledo and didn’t really see anything. Perhaps they did this on purpose.


By lunchtime rumors have it that we have made up some lost time and are now back to being four hours late. This would get us into Chicago around 1:45, just in time to make the connection.

They just opened the dining car again and one of my tablemates indicated that he heard we might make it by 1:30 pm. We’ll see.

We are just stopping in Elkhart, IN. Someone needs to go out and mow the lawn next to the station.

Life on the train

Life in the sleeper compartment makes one feel a little like Gulliver. Everything is just smaller than in real life; the bed, the aisles, the sink, the shower, and especially the toilet. I had to go down to the dining car and the lounge car a couple of times to re-experience normal size proportions.

June 27, 2007

Once again amazingly I am able to sleep on the train. It is not perfect sleep, but I probably got five or six hours of decent sleep. I don’t remember any stops along the way. The most noticeable thing is the fact that the air conditioning stopped working – I’m guessing at about 3:00 am. At five I get up and check the thermostat and also my travel clock which has a thermometer on it. It’s 79 in the roomette.

By 7:30 I am too hot to sleep and go out to find the dining car. Relatively speaking it is frigid in the dining car, but breakfast is good and I sit with a lady who returning to Sacramento, CA from NY. She has spent the last three weeks with her daughter in Fort Lee, NJ. We talk about California and NY, Broadway and trains. She’s a smoker and cannot wait until the next time we can stop and she can have a cigarette. I suggest that this might be a good time for her to stop. She reports that she had “lost her husband” last March and it would be hard to stop smoking now. Maybe she wants to join him sooner than later, I think.

The big news is the train has stopped and we are still 20 minutes out of Cleveland – EAST of Cleveland. This means we are now close to five hours late.

My roomette is too warm for blogging, so I have headed up to the club car to find some cool air. I call cousin Ralph to give him an update on the delays and he starts to develop contingency plans. Once in the club car, I find a conductor. He is NOT optimistic about our arriving in time to catch the Empire Builder. When asked what happens then he indicates that since they are guaranteed connections that Amtrak will provide accommodations in Chicago and a plan to get me to Portland. The word “bus” is mentioned. The adventure continues….

Chicago Bound

We’re on the Lake Shore Limited now chugging our way through the Boston suburbs and should be in Albany around 5:30 pm.

I had lunch in the Club Car and noticed a couple who I had seen in the Acela Lounge. He reminds me of Uncle Dick Weagly; I have a sneaking suspicion they may be brother and sister… I’m guessing they are returning to the mid-west somewhere…I’ll guess Minnesota. Or perhaps they will be going all the way across the country like me. They seem to be “of means” and obviously are grabbing a sleeper in Albany too. We’ll keep you posted.

We are now about an hour and a half out of Boston in the hill country west of Worcester – the second largest city in New England. I recall that this is where the Amtrak starts to climb into the foothills and ultimately, the Berkshires (you all know the James Taylor song where he sings, “…the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of the frosting…” – those Berkshires).

When I came though here 14 months ago it was late winter and the trees were all bare – no frosting. Despite the full vegetation now, there is still much to see. The track follows the extent bodies of water – the old railway architects certainly picked beautiful places to put their track.

We’ve passed through a number of small mill towns that seem to be fed by the river/stream that we are following. There was a beautiful mill and waterfall a few miles back. We’ll have to see if we can figure out what town that was. Very pretty.

7:00 pm

We finally arrived in Albany about an hour and a half late. The train experienced several delays, some due to “mechanical” issues and some related to the fact that CSX owns the lines and freight gets priority over people. All of the trainmen I’ve spoken to do not have nice things to say about CSX. I find out later that there was a high temperature restriction – when the temps get above 90, the trains need to stay under 45 mph. This was part of the delay. There was also a delay due to a traffic light that would not turn green. On two occasions we actually had to pull off to a siding and wait for another train to pass, then back up and resume our trip. That was a first.

In Albany I met Randy, an “Albanian” who was taking the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago for a conference. We had a nice chat and as I was the senior and resident expert on sleeper cars, I filled him in on what to expect.

There was a woman sitting in front of me with two boys. I noticed she was reading the Portland Press Herald, so I soon learned she was heading to Chicago with her son and nephew. She was concerned about the dining car being open once we go on the main train. I assured her I thought it would be open, and then checked with the information booth in Albany to confirm this.

When we arrived in Albany, I overheard a conductor’s radio report that the LSL coming up from NYC was running at least an hour late due to “a fatality.” This was later confirmed by people I met who were on that train. Apparently someone south of Poughkeepsie decided to commit suicide by Amtrak.

I also met Boyd and his wife, a Rhode Island native who was also heading to Portland, OR. They are going to a wedding. Boyd is retired railroad and his son also works for Amtrak. Boyd and his wife get to ride for free, but have to take coach. Boyd may come in handy.

The train from NYC did not arrive in Albany until almost eight. We finally boarded and I went to the dining car. It was now close to 8:30 and I met a professor from U Maine Farmington. We had a nice chat and ordered our meals, and I a bottle of their finest Chardonnay. We had just started eating our salads when the lights went out. It was a bit romantic for about five minutes. But then the 90 degree outside temperature started to invade the space and they stopped serving – railroad rules.

Those who had not ventured down to the dining car were ordered to stay in their rooms and seats while they tried and failed to fix the problem. Forty five more minutes and another engine hooked up and we are back in the light, but still sitting in Albany. It is now after 9:30 pm – we are about 2-1/2 hours late.

I return to my room and the fatigue of the day is getting to me. I take a shower then return to my roomette to listen to some music. Beddy-bye before 11:00.

On the road…

June 26, 2007 – 12:30 pm

I left Bob K’s house this morning at 8:00 in what is the first leg of the journey to the other Portland. Bob drove me to the Amtrak station in Wells where I boarded the 8:40 am Downeaster which arrived right on time. In less than two hours we were crossing the Charles and arriving at Boston’s North Station exactly on-time.

North Station, located below the famous Boston Garden has always been the wicked stepchild of train stations. Unlike its step sibling, South Station, North is really nothing more than a commuter rail station. But much to my surprise they have undergone some renovations since I was last here, expanding the waiting area with a new spacious hall. Still not of the grandeur of South Station, at least it’s no longer a dump.

A quick taxi ride to South and I checked my baggage and then reclined in the luxury of the Acela Lounge, a nice perk for those traveling First Class or who have a sleeper to Chicago. The Lounge is on a mezzanine overlooking the main waiting area. It’s nicely climate controlled space – a big advantage on this warm and humid morning – offering free snacks, drinks, newspapers and Wi-Fi. I did not notice the WiFi sign until it was almost time to leave, but used it long enough to gather some e-mails and check out some free books. More about the books later.

The funny story of the trip so far was an overheard conversation on the Downeaster. Two young women boarded in Dover, NH were walking down the aisle looking for seats when one of the women faced me and spoke, “Oh, half the seats are facing one way and the other half are facing the other way.” It was a rhetorical statement, no doubt, but being the instant comedian I responded to her that “we’re going somewhere else.” I of course was in one of the seats facing the back of the train.

A few minutes later the women headed back up the aisle when the one who spoke again rhetorically announced, “I think this half of the train may not be going to Boston, they are going ‘somewhere else.’”

I guess you had to have been there.

As a going away present to myself I bought a new MP3 player. My old one, a first generation SansDisk had never worked correctly and had committed Hari-Kari earlier in the week. I had contemplated making the trip without a MP3 player and relying on my laptop and some CDs. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized this would add more weight to the trip. So, I popped over to Sam’s Club and picked up a Creative Zen Vision: M. I did this literally hours before leaving for Bob’s so I barely had time to charge it and move some music over on to it. Today I played around with some of the features including the ability to view pictures and videos. It also has a microphone for podcasting and has an FM radio receiver which nicely was able to pick up some Boston classical stations.

The Zen had a free book flyer in the box announcing that one could log into some website and download two free books. What they failed to mention was the fact that one was required to sign up for the service for a year and pay $20 a month. No, thanks.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

All Aboard!

choo choo train
Tuesday I am setting out on an adventure. An adventure that will take me to the "left coast" from the "right coast" and back. An adventure that involves choo choo trains.

I hope to be able to blog and post pictures and videos along the way. I don't imagine there will be too many places to log in once I leave Chicago, but we'll see. Will definitely post when I get to the other Portland. Stay tuned and mark this blogspot.



Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cap'n Crunch is Dead

Cap'n Horatio Magellan Crunch himself
Not really.

But the woman who is credited with inventing that wonderful, tooth-rotting taste has died at the age of 79.

According to the AP story in the Boston Globe, Pamela Low of New London, NH died last Friday at the age of 79. They report:

Low, who lived in New London for the past 34 years, was working for the Arthur D. Little consulting firm in the Boston area when she was asked to help find a flavor for the corn-and-oat cereal. She had studied microbiology at the University of New Hampshire, but drew upon a recipe that her grandmother, Luella Low, used to serve at home in Derry.

"She used to serve rice with a butter-and-brown sugar sauce that she made. She'd serve it over the rice on Sundays," William Low, an Ohio resident and one of Pamela Low's younger brothers, recalled in an interview with the Lebanon Valley News on Saturday.
Cap'n Crunch cereal was introduced in 1963 - I was ten years old and personally am responsible for the company's success as I ate about three tons of the stuff that year. I even had a Cap'n Crunch "treasure chest" which contained a square plastic bowl and shovel-shaped spoon in which you could enjoy your morning treat of sugar and milk.

Imagine my surprise when 27 years later, when I first worked on a college campus, I discovered that the only two breakfast cereals that were served in the college cafeteria were Cap'n Crunch and Lucky Charms.

Pamela Low is personally responsible for getting at least three generations hooked on that stuff. Let's see someone top that!


Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pink Flamingos

pink flamingos in their glory
The words "pink flamingos" conger up a number of memories for me; the John Waters film in particular. However, when I read the story today about the closing of the manufacturing plant in Massachusetts that held the patent on those plastic little darlings I recalled another pink flamingo story that most people don't know about. Yes, the good news is another company has taken over the patent and they will now be spitting the pink birds out in upstate New York. But it must have been around 1980 when this event took place, an event that will forever remain my best pink flamingo story. . .

I was living in the pastoral village of Lower Bartlett, New Hampshire, just north of the tourist trap town of North Conway with its miles of stores, restaurants, motels and drinking establishments. That was at the time when "The Valley" (the Mount Washington Valley to be precise) had just started to explode with development. The land grabbers had come in the first wave in the 1970s and changed what had been a sleepy little hamlet into a resort town. Eight major ski resorts were within an hour's drive of North Conway, so it became the service center for all the tourism industry with lots of places to stay and eat. In the 90s this would expand further with rampant condo development and malls. By 1980, North Conway looks nothing like it did in 1970 when I first visited it on a family trip.

During the time I lived in Bartlett, 1979-1983 the population and development was pretty stable. They were still primarily a two seasons resort - winter and summer - but entrepreneurs were always trying hard to find things to make it a four-seasons resort.

As a two-season town there were a number of transient types who worked and played the ski slopes in the winter and labored in construction and low-paying jobs in the summer. Many of these folks were "fond of the drink" and kept the beer taps in the multitude of bars and restaurants pumping year round. This crowd - and life style - tended to draw a collection of interesting "characters," who spiced up the life in the Valley and created enough gossip and small talk that they had their own weekly newspaper called The Mountain Ear which had a whole page devoted to weekly gossip and "pub chatter."

So one should not have been that surprised when one Monday morning while I was driving to work I had my first sighting of wild pink flamingos. The location, a bog/wetland that was created between the relatively new by-pass highway and the steep embankment that carried the railroad tracks up the valley to the north, would be a logical place for flamingos to roost, right? Except it was late April, and this was New Hampshire, not exactly part of the native migration territory for tropical birds. Goodness knows, April in New Hampshire is more winter like than spring like.

I first noticed them on that overcast morning when the car in front of me tapped his brakes and started to drift into the breakdown lane. Being on autopilot myself, I unconsciously hit my brakes and looked off to the right. There they were. Two of them standing gracefully in the middle of the clear pond centered in the wetland.

It must have been the brain crustiness of a Monday morning as it took me a couple of seconds to react. "Pink Flamingos?" I mumbled to myself.

I stopped the car behind the guy in front of me and got out for a better look. "Yup, them's pink flamingos alright. But they gotta be plastic, right?" More rhetorical mumbling.

As me and the guy from the other car stood there staring in disbelief several other cars stopped and one gawker produced a camera and started taking pictures. People driving in the northbound lane also slowed to look and soon there was big crowd of people standing along the side of Route 16 pointing and laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Now having two plastic pink flamingos along the side of a road in New Hampshire, even in the end of April, was not that uncommon. What was unique about this event was the fact that this wetland sat about 70 feet below the road bed and 30 feet below the rail tracks. The area was a complete bog with no dry flat ground anywhere near the water. For someone to have placed two plastic pink flamingos into this location was quite a feat of ingenuity. And that's what people started to buzz about. How HAD these two birds been "flown in?"

As I was now late for work, I climbed back into my car and headed off to my destination. Once there I told my working companions about the amazing discovery. Soon others came in telling the same tale. By noontime everyone in town was buzzing about it, and apparently the Bartlett Police had to be called in to direct traffic and keep the rubberneckers away.

Later that day, as I drove home in the fading light there were still people standing by the side of the road. The police had ordered people to park at the scenic overlook up on top of the hill and walk back if they wanted to see the pink flamingos. The pink flamingos had become The Valley's latest tourist sensation.

That night on the local radio station the lead news story told of the pink flamingos and how the people were driving in from all over the valley to see the spectacle. On a call-in chat show later that night, caller after caller offering their theory about how the birds had come to rest in that most unusual of locations. One guy was convinced that they had to have been brought in by helicopter; UFOs and aliens were also mentioned.

The next day and the next day, the buzz and the excitement grew. There were new sightings in other locations in The Valley reported on the evening news, but they all turned out to be false. Apparently, some of the business people wanted to steer some of the new traffic in their location.

That Friday, the Mountain Ear had a whole issue devoted to the flamingos including maps and special interviews. However in the gossip column there seems to be some coded messages suggesting some of the local characters had the skinny on who it was who had done the caper.

It was all in good fun and a welcome diversion from the otherwise boring post winter - pre summer doldrums (locally known as Mud Season) that tended to invade this locale.

But then a new mystery came about. Some time between Sunday night and Monday morning, the Bartlett pink flamingos flew the coop! Gone! Vamoose!

Just as mysteriously as they had appeared, they had somehow managed to evict themselves from that unlikely spot, and vanished.

The buzz now shifted to the disappearance. "Could the birds have been the victims of fowl play" the headlines in Wednesday's paper read. But as Mud Season slowly turned into spring and then summer, the talk about the Bartlett Bog Pink Flamingos eventually trickled down and disappeared too.

To this day it remains a mystery. The true story about how two plastic pink flamingos flew into Bartlett, New Hampshire on a spring fling and flew off a week later may never be know.

But it will not be forgotten.