Thursday, May 21, 2009

Okay, This Is Really It

It's the last night of our vacation, and we spent a peaceful evening people-watching at Cafe Amadeus downtown near the university. There was a lot of humanity to watch, most of it relaxed and beautiful -- old, young, black, white, brown, golden, couples, groups, dogs -- the usual diversity of an academic community. It seemed like everybody was out enjoying the beautiful evening, eating outdoors in the cafes, strolling around. The only sour note at all was a group all wearing matching yellow t-shirts saying "Sarah and Malcolm: The Wedding Party Pub Crawl." These people were raucously, insultingly drunk, and there were lots of them. They would have been a blight on Bourbon Street. One young woman, jostled and insulted by them, remarked to her companion, "Oh look, !@#%$(*s in matching shirts." We wanted to applaud.

I'm all packed up for the flight home. I had to move all the stuff from my carry-on that is legal on trains but not on airplanes. Basically, you can carry anything you want onto a train; airplanes, not so much. It's been a great week, it really has. I'm going to miss the traveling around, but even more, and I might as well say this here, I'm going to miss the closeness with Hank. We often pass like ships in the night at home -- he goes to bed when I get up, we both have meetings and responsibilities. But here, out in the world together, we have time to laugh, to really talk, to play silly games, and generally be in love. If I could wish for one thing, and I do, it's that we carry some of the carefree spirit we've had this week into the summer ahead.

On the Advisability of Maps

We came to Ann Arbor on this last leg of our trip because Hank has his quarterly EPMG directors' meeting here. That means that today, he is stuck in windowless rooms looking at slides of people's colons. This does not strike me as a good time, so after wrapping myself affectionately around a garden omelet and some coffee, I rented a PT Cruiser (don't judge; it was cheap), and set off for the University of Michigan.

If we were still in Chicago, I wouldn't have the nerve to do this, but I remembered from our last trip that drivers in Ann Arbor are mellow to the point of comatose. They do not honk at you or flip you off if you make a mistake. In fact, they will graciously allow you to turn wherever you want, and I've noticed that they're remarkably tolerant of jaywalkers. For some reason, these mapless forays always end with me on the phone to Kathy, having her look up streets on Mapquest and tell me where the heck I am. The tradition of hotels handing out useful maps of a metropolitan area has really gone by the boards.

What I wanted to do first was go to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church (cf. "cathedrals") to pray for the son of friends who is in critical condition in a nowhere-near-state-of-the-art hospital in Nepal. (What is it with Nepal? I do not want Christopher to get wind of all this; he's anxious enough as it is.) I discovered that parking anywhere near St. Thomas was out of the question, and of course, one doesn't need a church to pray in, but I was looking for the focused intention that churches bring.

I found it in a huge photograph of a Portuguese cathedral that covers most of a wall in the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The museum was such a serendipitous find. It's small enough to be manageable -- unlike the Carnegie, in Pittsburgh, which needs a couple of days, or the National Gallery, in DC, which could take the better part of a lifetime. Art has to be ingested in small doses. You CAN rip through a musem and glance at everything, but enjoying what you see takes time. You have to be able to walk away, come back, stand and look from different angles, and generally mosey around. The UMMA galleries are perfect for this. I particularly liked line drawings by Gustav Klimt, small Chinese porcelains, and a wall of modern woodcarvings. My favorite thing, though, was a modern sculpture called "Stones from the River." Carved wooden bowls nestle in a low, teardrop shaped bench. The entire installation is about six feet long. When I was there, the sun was just touching the side of it, and it reminded me, for some reason, of Dad. This tiny picture doesn't do it justice, but it was the only one I could find.

After walking through the beautiful buildings of the law school and the elegant Student Union Building, I was headed home, but got sidetracked by the Forest Hill Cemetery, where I spent a happy half-hour lost on the myriad paths. I don't know why people find cemeteries morbid -- they're green and beautiful and full of quiet. This one was immense and full of the light-honey smell of blooming spirea. It was peaceful and gave me the energy to locate Division Street and the only way I knew back to the hotel. I can't expect Kathy to always put her job on standby while she helps me navigate long-distance.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The End of the Line

Today was the final leg of our train trip. We took the Wolverine from Chicago to Ann Arbor, a trip that took five hours and fifteen minutes when it should've taken about four hours. We were a bit delayed in Chicago switching out engines, and never made up the time. Oh well. It's a very pretty trip, after you get away from the industrial areas of south Chicago and Gary, IN. It's just that coach is a bit more confined, and we arrived in Ann Arbor stiff and tired.

The high point of the trip was a statue of Tony the Tiger on the lawn of a factory in Battle Creek, Michigan, home of a gazillion cereals. Cereal factories are very clean-looking, particularly in juxtaposition with the steel mills in Gary. I guess no one wants to think their cereal comes from a grubby place.

I should also mention that as we came through Chelsea, we were confronted with a fifty foot high painting of a Jiffy Corn Meal box, because Chelsea is "The Home of Jiffy Corn Meal Mix." We all have to have things to be proud of. Don't judge.

How We Started a Fire in Chicago

But first, to build the suspense, here's a lovely photo of the sunrise from our room. We didn't get up this early; we just woke up, took some pictures, and went back to sleep.

Now, on to how we started a fire, and no, this has nothing to do with euphemisms about how to celebrate 25 years of marriage. This is the other kind.

Our room, you notice, faces east. It's a very cool room, very art nouveau, lots of little extra decorations, including a shelf of books. On the marble desktop, they had seen fit to place a slightly out-of-period art deco lamp with a clear globe base, full of water. This watery globe sits exactly in front of one of the eastward facing windows, through which the morning sun streams like, well, blazes.

Hank and I were doing our morning get-ready-to-check out chores when I asked him, "Are you on fire?" Turns out, he wasn't, but his sweater was. We had tossed it on the desk near the lamp, and (I swear I am not making a word of this up) the sunlight through the globe of the lamp had ignited it. Smoke was spiraling upward, and the edges of the sleeve were laced with tiny, festive flames.

I put the sleeve in the sink to extinguish it, and moved some magazines that were under it. Then I called downstairs to let them know that their lamp positioning didn't take basic physics into account. I understand that much interior decoration doesn't. They were very apologetic, but did not apparently feel that our trauma warranted, say, a free stay at some other time. They did, however, promise to move the lamp.

The Chicago River: A Modern Fable

Once upon a time, there was a river. As rivers go, it was short and fat, and it didn't move very fast, because it had the misfortune to lie along Lake Michigan, where the slope gradient is less than a tenth of one percent. The total fall of the short, fat, river was less than five feet.

This did not matter, insofar as the river just oozed along, sloshing water back and forth with Lake Michigan in a very unorganized way. Sometimes the river flowed into the lake, and sometimes, when things were dry, the lake flowed into the river. It was one of those "open arrangements" that seem weird to more conventional minds, but it worked.

The people along the lake were nomadic sorts who didn't have very much use for rivers, so they left the short, fat river alone. Unfortunately, these were sent packing by some people who used rivers a lot, and those folks were busier than a hive of bees. They built houses and shops and granaries, and then they built abattoirs to chop up the animals that ate the grain. They noticed the short, fat river, and said, "Instant drainage." They dumped everything into it -- sewage, offal from the slaughterhouses, chemicals from the tanneries and soap makers whose businesses always happen alongside slaughterhouses. Because the people got their drinking water from the lake, through big intake cribs offshore, the short, fat river seemed unimportant.

The short, fat river could not do anything with this mess other than what it already did, which was to slosh back and forth with the lake. Sometimes the foulness from the river reached all the way out to the intake cribs. When that happened, people in the new city got sick. At one point, a sixth of the city's population died of cholera. Besides, it stank. No, it reeked. It produced so much gas from rotting goo that the south branch was called "Bubbly Creek."

Something had to be done, not to clean up the short, fat river, but to carry away all the filth that people wanted to dump into it. Because these people were rather typical of people everywhere, they decided to turn the short, fat river into a long, deep river going the other way. They dug a deep channel, hooked up the short, fat river to the Des Plains river, and watched with joy as Lake Michigan water flowed into the short, fat river and washed the stench and filth toward the Mississippi.

Oh, how the people downstream howled! How they complained about the smell and the disease! But there was nothing they could do, because it's not illegal to divert a river in Illinois, something that good children will be advised to remember. The people in the city rejoiced that the short, fat river was acting like a real river and actually flowing. They forgot that the gradient was so slight, and they forgot that silt and other goo will clog channels. It wasn't long before the short, fat river was just as horrid as before, only now it could foul water in two directions.

Then, one evil night, the city caught fire. The citizens on the north looked at the onrushing flames with dispassion. "The short, fat river will stop the fire before it gets to us," they said. They apparently believed that the short, fat river contained water. What it actually contained was a toxic, flammable stew that caught fire almost immediately. Now it was the northern side of the city's turn to howl, as soon as they rebuilt.

Moral: Don't mess with short, fat rivers.

Addendum: The Chicago river still flows west into the Des Plains, still carries a lot of waste that makes it unfit for animals or people, but the Friends of the Chicago River have gone a long way toward seeing in cleaned up, restricting development along its watercourse, and containing floodwater in huge reservoirs.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Travel with Kamel

When we headed out to meet Christopher and Kris for dinner, our bellman at the Blackstone handed us into the cab of Kamel Kahiri, and thirty seconds later I wondered if we'd forgotten to tip him or something. It is about a mile and a half to Navy Pier from our hotel, and in that distance Kamel cut off three cars, flipped off two drivers and one pedestrian, and slammed on his brakes so many times, we felt like bobblehead dolls. New Orleans cabdrivers do not do this, but I digress.

We had a wonderful dinner at Riva, a terrific seafood restaurant with equally terrific views of the sailboat basin and the city. The best thing, though, was just being with Christopher and Kris. I really can't believe we've waited so long to do this. Kris is so much fun, and the two of them have traveled a lot themselves and have great stories. The time flew. They insisted on taking US to dinner, to celebrate our anniversary, which was so kind. We tried to make an end run around them and pick up the check, but Kris sweet-talked the waiter, who seemed oddly immune to Hank trying to sweet talk him.

Now we're back in our room, watching the Lakers and wishing we could stay in Chicago longer. Tomorrow morning we catch the Wolverine for Ann Arbor, if we can navigate Union Station and actually find our train . . .

Chicago with Dr. Wolcott

I knew we were in trouble when Christopher called to see where we were. I burbled something cheerful about being almost to Union Station. Christopher was less than sanguine. "You're going to come out in a lot of tunnels down there. Just head for the daylight and then call me and tell me where you are."

Right. How hard can this be? I'll tell you how hard. We decided pretty quickly that if New Orleans is the Big Easy, then Chicago, 926 miles north, is the Big Hard. First of all, tunnels DO go everywhere down there, and we are not familiar with the layout. Second, we have arrived during rush hour, along with ten thousand Chicagoans heading to work from the double-decker commuter trains. We are squashed on escalators, bumped on concourses, and bumfoozled when we finally get to the light.

I call Christopher, but I don't know where we are, and there aren't any street signs. Finally I walk a block west to an intersection and figure it out. It's another fifteen minutes, thanks to the magic of rush hour traffic, before the welcome (and oddly familiar) sight of Christopher's silver Ford Explorer with a Yakima rack, pulls up in front of a line of cabs.

After that, Chicago got a LOT easier. Christopher drove us all over, from Hyde Park to Lincoln Park and beyond, while we looked at architecture and got caught up. We took a walk along Lake Michigan, and back around by one of many yacht basins, enjoying the blue sky and the company. We went to his and Kris's house, a truly beautiful garden condominium in the north Chicago neighborhood near Wrigley Field. We also looked at his office, which he designed himself.

After a yummy 100% organic lunch at a restaurant called Uncommon Ground (where Christopher knew everybody, waiter and patrons), he dropped us off at the Blackstone Renaissance downtown. From the window of our 17th floor room, we have a fabulous view of Grant Park, the Buckingham Fountain, and Lake Michigan beyond. This is so interesting, and so different, that I really wish we had a lot more time here. As it is, we'll be taking a cab in a few minutes to Navy Pier to meet Christopher and Kris for dinner.

The biggest thrill in seeing Chicago is seeing Christopher and how well he's doing here. It's also cool that he's Dr. Wolcott, and that his chiropractic practice has really taken off. He teaches two days a week at two different Chicago schools, too. He's going to Nepal in June to see David (his brother), who's been there for five months, living with a Nepalese family and teaching. I feel mostly caught up with him, but also really impressed with how much he has done and continues to do, and yet he's the same comfortable Christopher. With the same dry sense of humor, and no, Chip, he has not once mentioned that you wrecked his truck.

Some random Chicago thoughts: This is the third largest city in the U.S., after New York and Los Angeles. It does not lend itself as well to walking as some more compact cities we've visited; it could spread in every direction, so it did. On the other hand, I would hate to try and drive here. This is the sort of city for which cabs were made. I must remember on return visits to budget for cabfare.

Chicago gets its drinking water from Lake Michigan. You can just see the little artificial islands where the intakes are. On the plus side, there's a lot of water in Lake Michigan (whose vastness really has to be seen to be believed), but on the downside, a lot of that water is pretty dirty with things like PCB's and mercury. Thanks to the zebra mussel, the water is crystal clear, which makes looking into the depths off the jetties somewhat alarming, particularly if you're me, and you don't have great balance at the best of times, much less when you've been walking on a train for a while. Nobody had to fish me out, but I didn't walk too close to the edge, either.

And P.S., the photo above was taken out of our hotel room window. This is just amazing.

Miracle Ear

Somebody, and I think it was Pam Clark, said"We'll see if you still love trains after you've been on them a while." I've been on trains for a lot of hours -- almost forty at this point -- and yes, I still love them. We've had several Arlo Guthrie moments on the City of New Orleans. It's a newer train, bigger room (except for the upper berth, where Hank struggled all night with cramped quarters), and cooler dining car. I like it.

I also, strangely enough, slept like a real person, all night long, thanks to the miracle of earplugs, which shut out all the distracting noises. We stayed awake until Memphis, because we wanted to see it, and it did not disappoint. The Mississippi River runs right to the left of the train tracks, and even in the dark, it's spectacular. Crossing the Ohio at Cairo was pretty cool, too, insofar as I just woke up as we were pulling onto the bridge. I watched the train cross, then went back to sleep. We're an hour and a half from Chicago. Yay!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cool and Blue

New Orleans had record cold last night -- 61 degrees. O-kay.

We had beignets and Cajun hash browns in a sunny courtyard this morning. I fed the sparrows bits of beignet from my hand, to Hank's amused exasperation. He said he was sorry that something as small as a sparrow could do a mind meld on me. We walked slowly down to the river, took pictures, and now we're packing up for the train station. On to Part II of the adventure.

As the average train whistle says: Woohoo.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

One for the Collection

The cathedral of St. Louis was founded in 1720. The current building dates from 1792. I think that argues, actually, for some architectural stability. The first archbishop is buried beneath the altar, with 47 other people. I was kind of horrified to learn this, but then discovered that most of these are prelates, and they didn't just wind up there in some sort of sarcophagus accident.

Despite being a non-Catholic, I collect cathedrals, and that's one of the first places I seek out in a new city. I have prayed in cathedrals from Pittsburgh to St. Augustine, my favorite being St. John the Baptist in Savannah, because of the brightly painted interior.

Cathedrals are designed to draw one's attention to God, particularly to the majesty and greatness of God, something that we Protestants tend to miss with, say, the Porter's Bottom Holiness Tabernacle and Upholstery Shop. In a cathedral, the world is hushed. The ceiling soars away at the top of columns that are themselves reminders of the necessary vertical element in our relationship with the divine. In the days before printing presses made the Bible accessible, the stained glass of the cathedral illustrated the stories of the faith for a largely illiterate population.

St. Louis is a beautiful cathedral wrapped in a rather humble exterior. The narthex, particularly, is grim and brown, and like everything else, watermarked. Once inside, though, the cathedral is bright with paintings on walls and ceilings, and wonderful windows. The clerestory windows are geometric designs, refreshingly plain, while the main windows depict scenes from the life of Christ. The altar is an elaborate baroque creation dating from 1852. It's interesting that the church's literature about its architecture and ornamentation stresses, repeatedly, its compliance with Vatican II. Not sure what that's about, really, but I enjoyed standing in the reverential atmosphere, breathing the cathedral-smell of candles and incense.

A Day on the Town

Today, as promised, was architecture day, with several forays into other areas. Our mid-morning stroll ended at the Court of the Two Sisters, where brunch was a lively outdoor experience. Hank had a crawfish, much to his own consternation and the amusement of nearby diners. One couple were sort of helpful, admitting that they'd been similarly balked by the crustaceans the night before. Our Hero finally wrestled the tail loose, and announced that it did, in fact, taste like lobster. And the entrails? "I guess they taste like entrails," was his astute assessment. He decided that the best part of the crawfish was the tail, and he'd stick with that. I applauded.

The brunch is a serious foodie affair, with a number of delicious things that just have no Appalachian equivalent. House-made andouille sausage, brioche, crawfish salad . . . it's awesome. The other awesome thing was that, in honor of the occasion, Hank had the jazz trio serenade me with "Where or When," a tune made famous in our personal history by Judy Collins.

We finished brunch in the outdoor court just as the rain started, and so we fled across the street to an art gallery and talked about jewelry making with the owner until the downpour turned drizzle. From there, we've spent much of the day wandering the French Quarter in a desultory way, looking for interesting buildings, taking pictures, and generally being tourists.

The French Quarter is FULL of tourists, and this makes people here happy. Part of our afternoon was spent on a mule-drawn-wagon tour, where our guide told us, rather plaintively, how happy New Orleans is to have the tourists back. You cannot go far in this city, or talk to many people, without coming smack against Katrina and the aftermath. Coming in on the train, for instance, you notice that every block has houses that are boarded up, ruined, abandoned. Even here, downtown, the building across from us -- and we're on the 19th floor, looking into the side of it, so it's not small -- has boarded windows and broken glass.

It's the elephant in the living room. New Orleans is not the city it used to be -- much of that old city has yet to be rebuilt, and maybe it won't be. The people here now are the ones who believe that the place can come back. The others left. Tony, the attendant in our sleeping car, used to live here. He and his wife lost their house in the storm, and he moved to Georgia. He's from New Orleans, but he said he couldn't live here anymore, couldn't take the risk, didn't want to keep starting over.

On the other hand, Jeff, our waiter this morning, couldn't wait to come back. He loves this city, hurricanes be damned. (He's from Minnesota, where crawfish are bait and palm trees are postcards. This probably has something to do with it.) I'm just a tourist, and I don't have a right to an opinion, but I stood on the bank of the Mississippi River this afternoon, having walked UP to get to it, and looked at a continent's worth of water roiling past. The river is 210 feet deep here, miles wide, and the city settles at the rate of three inches a century. "We just have to hope we never get another storm like Katrina," our tour guide said. Me, I really don't like the odds.

A Bluestocking on Bourbon Street

Okay, let's imagine that my idea of a good time is architecture, with a non-fiction book to help me calm down afterwards. Now let's drop me onto Bourbon Street, and see what happens. I wish I had pictures.

I'm not sure what I had imagined, but Hank leaned over and commented, at one point, that it was like Busch Gardens on crack. Music poured out of every open doorway, people sloshed into the street from every direction and in every possible way, and even though Mardi Gras was a while back, a fair number of people wore beads. Hmmm. Wonder how they got them?

The thing is, there's a lot of humanity to be watched, and a lot of music to listen to, and it was fun. I was a little surprised at that last bit, because this really isn't my deal. When I was looking completely overwhelmed, Hank steered me into Cafe Beignet, where we had excesses of our own -- pecan tarts, bread pudding, and, of course, beignets that were -- thank you Jimmy Buffett -- too hot to touch. All the while we were doing this, we sat at a little table in an open courtyard listening to a Dixieland jazz band fronted by a guy who calls himself Steamboat Willie. (I informally dubbed his bass player Slick Willie and his drummer Wet Willie, and that pretty much sums them up.)

Thing is, Steamboat Willie could flat play a trumpet, AND a banjo. So it was good music, lots of sugar, and welcome to New Orleans.

I got back to our hotel room (on the 19th floor of the Pere Something), took a shower, and honestly, literally, do not remember closing my eyes.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

More Fun from the Train

Trains are a little bit like cruise ships. You spend a lot of time eating. And napping. And, of course, waking up. These are kind of backward, but you get the idea. Our Exhibit A especially prepared himself for this trip by not sleeping for the 36 hours previous, thereby guaranteeing himself a good night's sleep on the train . . . and a good morning's sleep . . . and several good minutes in the afternoon.

And here are the random musings for this afternoon as well.

The Talladega River. Flooding. A bit scary, actually. This was the first big bridge I was awake for since Danville. Very wet, Alabama.

Pell City, home of the Panthers. I LIKE a place that puts its name right where train passengers can find it. When I rule the world, everywhere will have to put its name out front, so you don't have to strain your eyes looking at auto license plates to figure out what state you're in. Furthermore, I'm gonna require that states paint big, wide boundary lines that can be seen from airplanes, too.

Long Honking Tunnel. Somewhere east of Birmingham. I like tunnels almost as much as bridges.

East of Birmingham. The sun is shining, at least for now, and the wind is blowing the rain from the trees in flashes of silver.

Mounds. 900 years ago, some native tribes built a bunch of mounds for ceremonial purposes. The train goes right by these, and it's very strange. Green circles of earth coming almost straight up from the ground.

And By the Way

I finally fixed the time stamp, so that it shows EDT instead of PST. Woohoo. AND, I will be photographing the room soon, so you can see our cozy rolling home, complete with sleeping spouse!

Rolling Through Georgia

Sometime around midnight last night I sent Sarah a text message, to wit: “I can't sleep; I'm too excited.” Hank was already asnooze in his upper berth, but I lay in the darkness and watched the world roll by, afraid to miss anything. It wasn't until Salisbury that the tiredness kicked in and I was able to sleep. Even then, it was a fractured sleep; trains are surprisingly bouncy. At one point, I would have sworn we'd hit a moose. Sometimes we'd stop to let another train pass. Sometimes we stopped at stations – Greensboro, Salisbury, Charlotte. After that, I slept and did not remember.

This is not like ANYthing we've ever done before. Our rolling bedroom is equipped with a shower/toilet combination that's very weird. We have two berths that we're not eager to convert back to the day benches. They are surprisingly comfortable, mostly because each one is the seat itself, topped with a separate mattress. When the sleeping car attendant made our beds last night, he put the mattresses on top already fitted with sheets and blankets. Hank is napping, in the lower one, despite having three cups of very good coffee at breakfast. The room is compact, the way I'd imagine a cabin is on a ship. We have high shelves to store gear (really only accessible from the upper berth), and stowage space under the lower berth.

We had breakfast in the dining car, beginning while it was parked in Atlanta. I can't get the hang of walking on a moving train. Somewhere in mid breakfast, the train pulled out, and we ate omelets and French toast while watching downtown Atlanta slide by. Our waiter, Leroy, brought us coffee, which he poured with complete confidence, despite the train lurching all over the place. I would have dumped coffee all over me, the dining car, and possibly all the other diners.

Now we're rolling through the city of Bremen, Georgia, at 9:50 a.m. It's raining in Bremen, but rain doesn't faze us; we're not driving. What we ARE doing is marveling that the entire state of Georgia seems to be covered in kudzu. As a matter of fact, kudzu and red mud seem to be the order of the day. It's very green out there, despite the rain, except in the places where the red clay has made little rivulets of water the color of cream of tomato soup.

One further observation, while I wait for Birmingham and a chance to upload: The train is much quieter than we expected. At slower speeds, it feels like we're floating along, frictionless. Of course, when we speed up, it's like being in the back of somebody's pickup truck – somebody who doesn't think much of his suspension.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Preparing for Launch

. . . or is that "lunch?" Today we leave for the big train adventure, and because my brain works this way, I'm writing about it instead of packing. Well, some things are already packed. The important things -- my journal, sketchbook, watercolors, and books. I'm taking Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Annie Dillard's newest, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and, finally, the highly recommended Ella Minnow Pea.

This evening we take the train from Charlottesville to New Orleans. According to the timetable, this trip takes 23 hours. In a way, I'm really sorry it leaves so late, because I would love to be able to see the familiar country around C'ville from the unfamiliar viewpoint of the train tracks. Goodness knows, when we lived there, we tresspassed on them enough times, but riding the actual train is different.

All week I've been reading voraciously about train travel -- what to take, what to expect, stories from other passengers. Now, in just a little over twelve hours, the fun will actually begin. Believe me, there will be further bulletins as events warrant.