Friday, October 24, 2014

A train then a plane

Morning brought Nevada: parched, scrubby and flat, dotted with salt flats and encircled by bare hills that when the sun rose took shape like a Grahame Sydney painting. As the light strengthened, they lost definition, becoming just a backdrop for trucks and macho utes on the long, straight road beside the railway tracks.

In the lounge car people played cards, read, knitted, listened to music, chatted, or dozed in the sun; a couple of well-behaved children played a tile game. Winnemucca came and went, and Reno, then California brought the Sierras and Truckee, Lake Tahoe, Colfax…

And then it all went horribly wrong. Approaching the little town of Auburn, not a scheduled stop, we slid to a halt and – nothing happened. Nothing kept on happening, for an hour, as the clock ticked on, adding more and more time to the two-hour delay that had already built up after a late start from Chicago. Most people weren’t particularly bothered, but for us, with a flight home from San Francisco that evening, it was somewhat fraught.

Amtrak is, it turns out, not known for its punctuality. “Oh this is nothing!” said cheerful John, a waiter in the dining car. “Freight train derailments – it’s been 1am sometimes. And if someone drives his car in front of the train and gets killed, well, that’s four hours right there. The coroner has to come out.”

As it turned out, there was a fatality involved: a gunman had shot four people, and a deputy had died. The perp was holed up in a house and the town was in lockdown, helicopters buzzing overhead, while our train was held on the outskirts. It seemed churlish to complain (although we did).

But then the journey continued: citrus orchards, palm trees, industry, salt marshes, and finally the sea, and the California Zephyr slid into Emeryville station after 2438 miles and a bit over two days. We found a gallant taxi driver who swore that she’d never had anyone miss a plane in 23 years, and whisked us along unusually empty roads, thanks to the World Series game already in progress. She got us to the airport in just under half an hour – where, despite the heart-stopping 'Closed' sign over the check-in desk, the laid-back clerk took our passports and gave our epic journey a happy ending.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Going west

Today was one of those out-of-the-loop days that you sometimes get when you’re travelling – but not that confused airplane blur when you can’t work out what the real time is or even how long you’ve been travelling. No, it’s been a proper day of orderly meals that began with waking up in bed and will end with falling asleep ditto – but in between there’s been nothing to do but watch the scenery pass, capture some of it in photos, and talk with whoever came within my reach. That’s the luxury of spending an entire day on a train.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr has continued on its way through – so far – Illinois, Nebraska and Colorado, winding up into the Rockies giving glimpses of distant snowy peaks, through steep gorges and dozens and dozens of tunnels (one of them over 6 miles long), following the clear and tumbling waters of the Colorado River as it cuts its way through granite and sandstone, and across flat valleys between stands of brilliant yellow cottonwoods and aspens. There were men drift-fishing for trout in boats or standing waist deep casting flies; a flock of wild turkeys, a single mountain goat, a herd of alpacas, beef cattle standing in sorting yards, horses corralled next to red barns.

The scenery has been great; but the company was better. That’s the wonderful thing about train travel: the universal sense of relaxation amongst the passengers, who have nothing more urgent to do than sit by a window, look at the countryside, and chat to whoever happens to be nearby. So there’s been Richard from New York talking about Labradors and chocolate; Tom from the UK about being written off as restaurant wastage; Skip the mayor of Sterling on the delights of international homestays: Jolanda about escorting children to school after wolf warnings; Dave-party-of-one and his Doomsday GPS/sunspot scenario; and politics, the Golden Gate Bridge and the intelligence of mules with a man who was – or maybe wasn’t? – a government Special Investigator and then a designer of nuclear weapons for Lockheed.


What with all of them, and some epic eavesdropping too, it’s been an entertaining day, which has quite made up for the horrendous night in the upper bunk of Amtrak’s Sleeper, which is neither wide enough, high enough, soft enough, smooth enough or secure enough for a real person to sleep in/on. Really, the only occupant it could possibly suit would be a corpse. And oh! That’s right, there’s another night just like it right ahead of me. Yay.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Goodbye to Chicago

It was another bright sunny morning so I was up early, striding the pavement along with all the wage-slaves clutching their coffees, while the beggars set up their stations with their hand-written cardboard signs. (Some of them should really be snatched up as copywriters by advertising agencies, their pleas are so cleverly worded.) My mission was to capture the Cloud Gate again under a blue sky with no-one in the picture; and though it wasn’t as deserted as that other morning last April, it was nothing that a little patience couldn’t fix.

And then, that was it for Chicago. I’m quite sorry because I really like this city: it helped, that in April at IPW we were all made to feel so welcome, and were invited to some epic parties; but this visit has been lovely too. The trees (sorry) are beautiful, the buildings are amazing, the people have been friendly, we had fun in Lincoln Park, the Peninsula had the best bed ever, the museums are just brilliant… Though I’m conscious of time running out and the need not to waste it by revisiting places, I wouldn’t like to think I won’t ever be returning.

Now, the journey home has begun. It’s still part of the trip though: we’re crossing three-quarters of the US by train, just over two days from Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr, courtesy of Amtrak – by which I mean, not courtesy of them at all, in the usual travel writer’s sense. Cheapskates!

So I decided I will show no mercy if things don’t go well. Unfortunately for my sense of vengeance, though, so far there’s been little to complain about: less information about checking in than was helpful, a late departure, and a smaller-than-expected sleeper (which was actually our fault), and that’s all.


Otherwise – and I write this before the transformation of our tiny cabin into its sleep mode, when I will have to scramble into the upper bunk in my underwear, my suitcase having proved too big for this phone-box and been consigned to a rack downstairs – so far it’s all been lovely. There’s an upper-level lounge car with seats facing the large windows that curve up into the roof, the scenery’s been vast fields of maize dotted with red barns, shiny silos and combines trailing clouds of dust, dinner was pleasant and shared with a couple of random other passengers, who were interesting company, and we have Denver and the Rockies to look forward to in the morning after traversing Iowa’s flatness while we sleep. How disappointing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fine things


At the risk of sounding like that character – Cecil, was it? – in A Room with a View who boasts about how long he spent looking at a painting in the Uffizi Gallery, today I finally gave a museum something like its due. It was the Art Institute of Chicago, and I was in there for almost four hours, cruising the galleries: a real luxury compared with the guilt-inducing flitting that’s been a feature of this trip. They’re very proud of having been voted by TripAdvisor (than which there is no higher arbiter) the Number 1 museum in the country, and they certainly have some good stuff in there.
Though I enjoyed the American art, it was the Impressionists who seemed to be making the greatest, er, impression, with people actually queuing up to photograph some of the better-known works with their cell-phones – Van Gogh’s self-portrait was particularly popular, as was the painting (one of them) of his room in the yellow house in Arles. There was a whole series of Monet’s haystacks, lots of Manets, lovely Renoirs, Pissaro, Sisley… oh, they’re all there, the big names as well as (to me) lesser-known artists. There was a portrait of little Jean Renoir by his father who, to the boy’s embarrassment, wouldn’t let his gorgeous flowing ginger hair be cut until his school insisted on it at age 7. Mind you, Jean didn’t do himself any favours allowing his father to paint him sewing.
Eventually, I decided to leave, but on visiting the loos before going, came across what I think is actually the coolest part of the whole collection: the Thorne Miniature Rooms. This is a series of nearly seventy 1 inch to the foot scale European and American rooms – parlours, bedrooms, kitchens – set into the gallery walls that show architectural and interior design development from the 13th century up till about 1930, which is when they were all built. The main treasures are the miniature antiques of furniture and furnishings, but the rooms are all decorated authentically using the same wood for panelling for example as in the real thing. They’re marvellous! You can see out of the windows and doors, up staircases and into adjoining rooms…
The only thing I didn’t like was that the woman who initiated this wonderful series and oversaw all the craftsmen who built the rooms she filled with her collected miniatures, was referred to throughout only as Mrs James Ward Thorne. I had to look really hard to find her own name, which was Narcissa.

So that was today’s main effort: worth a visit, definitely. It’s in the CityPass booklet. I enjoyed it – except not the Modern Gallery, the best feature of which is the open space and brightness; the worst being the video installation entitled ‘Clown Torture’ which consists of a clown writhing on the floor, groaning. Pft. And the day ended with a fancy high tea in the Peninsula’s grand and elegant lobby, and a foamy bath back in the room watching the TV on the wall above the taps while I washed my smalls. Classy!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ten, and less, out of ten

I felt like a local today in Lincoln Park, exchanging friendly greetings with the tall black man with the warm brown voice and the little white fluffy dog as we passed each other on the Pond boardwalk for the second morning in a row. It was beautifully clear and sunny, the leaves (sorry to keep harping on about the blasted leaves – but they’re just so pretty) reflected in water that was disturbed only by the ducks and geese, and the egret stalking the shallows. In the farm, the sheep baaed, the cows were pleased to be out in the sun, and the ponies were whickering.

It was all a far cry from the restrained elegance of the Peninsula Hotel in Michigan Ave, where we moved today from the Hotel Lincoln (slightly reluctantly because Bastille were checking in as we left). Still, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with deep carpets, orchids, gleaming marble, a cellist and violinist sawing away, and a bright, understated room on the 17th floor with pleasing views over the Water Tower towards the John Hancock building.
The tower took a back seat to this morning’s Architecture Foundation Cruise along the river for 90 minutes hearing all about the buildings that line both sides. I learned about spandrels, and was reminded of a lot of other architectural stuff that doesn’t feature regularly in my life. It was a lovely way to spend 90 minutes, and the guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The buildings all looked sharp and clear in the bright sunshine, many of them reflecting each other and even the Trump tower, dominant and shiny, looked attractive.
Not living up to expectation was the wonut at the Waffles Café in Ohio St: a deep-fried waffle, it was certainly as unhealthy as I anticipated when I eagerly read about it months ago back home, but it was stodgier too, and not that nice. Shame. The deep dish pizza at Giordano’s just across the road, on the other hand, was much nicer than I anticipated (I’m a thin-base person from way back). It was too much to finish, of course, but it was very tasty and I would eat it again. Preferably when I was much, much hungrier.

The star of today though was U-505, the captured German submarine in the basement of the Museum of Science and Industry (where I went to an amazing farewell party in April at the IPW conference). Again, the time was too short – not our fault entirely, the museum closed unexpectedly early at 4pm – to appreciate everything there was to see in only this one exhibit, let alone all the other delights in its 14 acres of floor space. The submarine was so well presented, so thorough, so entertaining, so authentic, so interesting: full marks.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Second City stars

It seems a service too far, but sometimes hotels include a set of scales in their bathrooms. This trip, however, the irresistible temptation to step on them and ruin the holiday hasn’t been a penance, simply because I’ve done so much walking, and despite all the freely-available (literally, often) delicious food I haven’t gained any weight at all. Today was a case in point, the entire afternoon being spent on the move.

The day began with a hike, back into Lincoln Park to make the most of a sunny morning, to re-take some photos, check up on those hideaway rhinos again (nup) and absorb a bit of the local vibe. Mostly it involved people walking, running, cycling, exercising dogs, playing soccer and gazing out to what it is still really hard not to call the sea. There were waves, a sandy beach, a distant horizon… There were also geese and squirrels, both in large numbers, almost distracting from the classic skyscraper skyline.
Dutiful tourists – and also in possession of complimentary CityPass booklets – we duly ascended the Hancock Tower to gaze over the city and lake; and then did the same thing at the Willis (Sears) Tower, which was very much more crowded. The plebs had a (gasp!) two-hour wait to get to the top but our passes allowed us to bypass most of that, though there was still queuing involved. I suppose the view is a bit better, being higher, and you can see the impressive motorway junction – though not Lincoln Park so well; but it’s marginal, and the queues at the Hancock Tower were noticeably less.

The Cloud Gate was also heaving, so much so that I can hardly believe that in April I got a photo with no-one in it – though that was early morning.
Then I returned to Lincoln Park to prowl the streets, admiring the pretty 3-storey wooden, brick and stone houses, lining streets that are carpeted yellow right now with fallen robinia frisia leaves. I checked up on the rhinos again (nup) then detoured into the Chicago Museum of History for a dose of museum guilt – really, it’s very well done and tells some riveting stories extremely well, especially the current temporary exhibition focused on 1968 – and then I went to explore the Old Town.

More lovely houses, trees, interesting shops, restaurants, people in bars noisily following the Chicago Bears v. Miami Dolphins football game, disconsolate young Anatha sitting behind her footpath table not selling her cupcakes, more dogs, and a surprising number of comedy theatres. Second City was one of them, and their ‘Apes of Wrath’ show tonight was excellent – clever, funny and lively. I have to say that *cough* the audience member selected to go on stage to take part in the Wolverine cosplay sketch was a highlight. I mean that literally – I had noticed I was sitting under a particularly bright light earlier on: that’s a warning sign, take it from me.


So, it was a busy day, and full of enjoyment - although, sadly, completely empty of rhinos.

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