Travelog Part 11 – homeward

We had more trouble finding our way out of Quebec than into it. The trouble was in reading signs incorrectly and not map reading well. Still it didn’t take as too far out of the way and took us into a neighborhood where we observed temporary garages. These are metal or plastic pole frames, slant-roofed, and covered with canvas or tarp standing in the driveways. I imagine the cars are parked in these in the winter and it keeps the frost and snow off them. Then in the summer the car tents can be folded up and stored.

To find people who speak primarily French, one has to get out of the cities, out of the tourist areas of the cities, at least. In Trois Riviere, we stopped for lunch in a strip mall at a place that reminds me of Village Inn, but French. Instead of mini-blinds, there are tall diaphanous drapes on the windows. Our waitress did not have a command of English, so resorted to pointing to help her take our order.

The bridge that we saw when we were in St Anne is the bridge we took to our return toward the states. We took 401 to Cornwall, Ontario. There we saw a sign that said “Toll Road”, which we thought meant that the bridge had a toll. We stopped at a gas station and asked about the toll. We were told that “Toll Road” meant that was the name of the road we crossed, but that there was a toll for the bridge and they thought you had to pay in American. I went to the bank nearby and I had a nice chat with the teller about Oregon and the peach tree orchard her friend has that managed to bear fruit because it was protected from the weather. Duane came in just as I was about to get money from the debit card for the toll and said they will take Canadian. So we were off to cross over. Over the bridge and into American territory.

Border crossing. We had our ID and birth certificates ready. Guard asks, “Where are you from?” “Oregon.”
“Whose car is this?”
“It’s a rental car.”
“What were you doing in Canada?”
“Do you know anyone in Canada?”
“No. We are just on vacation.”
“What are you bringing back with you?”
Somehow it comes out that we were doing research for a book and the guard seems to get more personable, almost friendly.
“Do you have a publisher?”
“I hear that’s real hard. Well, I’m going to ask you to just drive over there and park and go into that building. They will have you sign some paperwork and you will get your ID back.”

We pull over, get out, go in the building, answer more questions about how we didn’t buy anything while we were in Canada. This guard asks, “Mind if I take a look in your car?” Why do they ask? You can’t really refuse. I mean we could have been taken to some island prison and forgotten, if we had said, sorry, no. He pokes around in the car. I look at wanted posters and posters of missing girls. One of them is from Springfield or Eugene, I don’t remember which and there she is on the bulletin board of a border crossing customs and immigration office in noplace New York. Missing teenager. I don’t remember her face. The guard comes back. We sign our document declaring we brought nothing back and we are off again.

We are about to see something we would not have believed if some one had told us, we would not have been able to imagine it. We head out intending to take 37 to 56, to 11 and meet up with 81. But we miss 56 and stay on 37 which parallels the St Lawrence (we’re back in English) as it flows up from the great lakes. Tootling along, we come to a pullout view area. I have to pee, no toilet, have to find a dip in the ground high enough to shield me from the highway. In doing so I spy what appear to be a house and one tree sitting out from the bank, in the river. The sun is hitting the river, and the river is just stirred up enough to reflect it back in zillions of sparkles and this house is sitting in this sparkling river. It looks like the calm after the waters rose, but have not receded. I was dead sure that the river was flooding. “Duane, you’ve got to see this!” We took pictures.

Drove on. And saw another viewpoint. Here we could see the house from the opposite side and we could see other houses on other bits of land and a sign “1,000 Islands”. These were islands. Someone had deliberately built their house on a tiny island and not just them but lots of people built there homes out there in the river. Many of these are probably vacation homes. One of the islands had a French fort on it and is called Chimney Island, previously Ile Royal, previously La Gallette. The old indian name was Orocaneton, meaning hanging sun. It is one of the ghost sights of New York, it is where the French built a fort, Ft Levis and defended and lost. The island was recently on the market and has a new owner. After the French were purged, the Scots were invited in to settle the area and so the sign at the second viewpoint touts the brave and indefatigable Scots who turned the bountiful forests into the marginal farms we see today. Drive on

Oh God don’t let me die in Watertown. Cars, strip malls, soldiers in fatigues, American flags, price-gouging dour purveyors of motels both ratty and depressing. Our first meal back on American soil was dinner at Appleby’s where you can call up on your cell phone and the wait staff will bring your order to your car before the cell phone can alter the cells in your brain more than just an increment toward the tumor. (Are tumor and tumescent related words?). Inside the restaurant is packed and noisy, but here we can understand lots of what is being said, but we can’t understand most of what is being said. The words are clear if the speaker is close enough, but the conversation is unclear. The size of the meals is startling. Steaks the size of your lung. We had gardenburgers. It’s a true miracle we weren’t taken out of town and dumped. Wasn’t that bad. No one noticed us.

Still in search of a motel, on the road again. We needed gas so we went to Pulaski. Interesting little burg. There was no way to get back on the freeway without driving all the way through this town. If fish go extinct, so will Pulaski. We were going to get a bed there, but the motel was unbelievably high and besides they didn’t allow fish in the rooms, nor waders, nor mud. . . so what could we do, but drive on.

Syracuse has two Motel 6’s so that’s where we ended up staying the night. Next morning we took the thruway to Rochester. Along the way we stopped at what the English would call a Layby. There was travelor respite in the form of restaurants and whatnot. At the Starbucks, Duane inquired after the strength of their lattes. Took two shots of espresso and was disappointed.

We drop the car off at the airport and the nicest customer service person in the world gives us information on how to get to the train station by bus. Our plan had been to take a taxi, but spending another 20 when we could spend a couple of dollars just seemed stupid, so we sought out information on mass transit. The man said he sometimes rode the “Iron Pony”, himself. He said there would hardly be anyone on the bus, since it was Saturday, showed us a picture of a building to landmark where we needed to change buses. His attitude was so wonderful that we were put in a marvelous mood. The bus was nearly empty. It was great because both of us could observe the cityscape as it passed by us. The houses seem to be built at exactly the same distance from the sidewalk and since they are almost identical in style, there is a regimented quality to the neighborhoods we pass through. The grass is green on these lawns and I am happy to see green at last. But there is an air of poverty here.

It is a two block walk to the train station from the bus stop and we erred in packing our apple butter and it fell out and smashed on the sidewalk. There was nothing we could do, but leave it. At the train station we were flabbergasted to find out that there were no lockers. We had ten hours before our train was scheduled to leave and no intention of dragging our bags about Rochester and no intention of sitting around that absolutely dreadful station. I was loud in my disappointment, so the ticket agent timidly poked her head out the door of her domain and said we could store them in with baggage claim for a price, which we gladly paid.

We needed food and books. Our walk took us to a mall. The Greyhound Station is attached to this mall. Inside, there were very few people and lots of empty store spaces. There are no plants to alleviate the stark corridors. At the food court we obtained bagel sandwiches. The woman behind the counter called everyone “honey.” In fact she ended each question about what we wanted on the sandwich with the word. “Do you want tomato, honey?” “Do you want lettuce, honey?” Even though it may have had no meaning, it still felt friendly. I mean, how can you not love a person who calls you honey? Unless you are a waitress and it is coming from somebody who has no business getting familiar with you. There is something different about the server calling you honey and being the server who is called honey. It is a power divide, I think. As the customer your social position is temporarily elevated. The server is meant to cater to you. As the server, your position is temporarily lower, one of less power. To be called “honey” is to be placed in a sexually inferior position vis a vis the customer. Even if there is no sexual intent, the term belittles, takes away power. Anyway, the honey-sayer did not know if there was a bookstore in the mall. She suggested the pharmacy, but I needed to go to the bathroom so first we went in search of a toilet.

The search for a toilet took us by a bookstore. We found a couple of books. One by Walter Mosley, Blue Light, amazing book. Complete departure from what he has published in the past. The other one was The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline Cooney, a book for young adults or juvenile, I am not sure what the category is called. This was also a wonderful book. It is the story of a historical person who was taken along with other children from a settlement in Massachusetts by Native Americans when the French were allied with the Indians against the English. Cooney’s treatment of all her characters is superb and compassionate. Mercy Carter refused ransom as did many children captured by Indians. The ransom was often offered years after the abduction and children had assimilated into the tribe and did not want to go back to “civilisation”. That may have been the case with William Way Davis, my ancestor who was captured by Shawnee as a small child. He returned as a young adult looking for his brother, went back to his Shawnee family, but finally returned to the European settlement for good. I don’t know that any ransom was ever offered for him, as his parents were killed. His brother Richard, was not captured. They did end up living near one another for the remainder of their lives.

Duane gets information from the bookseller about movie theaters. It is a young guy and he gives Duane the scoop on some indie houses. With our books selected, our toilet achieved, we set out to explore Rochester and locate the theaters.

Rochester, New York is a city of extremes. Extreme wealth, extreme poverty. Beautiful buildings, empty derelicts. The Eastman School of Music draws some of the very best young musicians. They and their professors occupy a café across the street. It is warm enough for tables outside. In fact in is almost too warm for me in Rochester and Spring has definitely arrived. Trees are leafing, grass is greening, daffodils are blooming.

Several large corporations are headquartered here. Eastman-Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb are located here as well as several regional corporations whose names would mean nothing to Westerners. One can assume that there are mansions somewhere in Rochester or perhaps they all live in New York and only the managers and peons live here.

Our walk takes us to The Chevy Café. This is an art deco corner building. Glass and Chrome, lots of outdoor tables and windows that are doors which were open all along one streetside—inside / outside. They knew how to make lattes. The coffee bar is an island in the center of an immense room, the ceiling rising 30 feet maybe, I’m terrible with such estimates. It is high. To the right of the coffee bar is an area separated from the rest of the room by drapery. Here are couches and comfortable chairs, coffee tables, end tables. There is also a fireplace laid with fake logs that glowed. We sit in this section. We are joined later by a group of young people who are rehearsing a wedding. Are they going to be married here? We wonder. They are very friendly and very happy. We spend quite a bit of time reading, then we go to a theater and watch Millions. Wonderful film, recommend it.

Now we want dinner. We decide to check out the Mediterranean restaurant we had passed by on our way to find the theater. It is a few steps lower than the street. Inside are several empty tables, but the hostess asks us if we have reservations, we do not and she says all the tables are reserved. We do suspect that she has just thrown us out for not being the clientele they deserve. Duane notices that there is a private club occupying the level above the restaurant. I am bruised. Across the street is an Asian restaurant and it is open. Packed, but we get a table immediately. It is noisy and friendly. After dinner, we head back to the train station. Here I notice how filthy the shirt I am wearing as a jacket is and I wonder if this had anything to do with the brusque rejection we had received. We are really a travel stained couple at this point in the journey. It had been our intent to wash our clothes in Rochester, but we did not.

Travelog Part 2 – adventures on Amtrak

This is what I remember about Havre, North Dakota. On the second day of the journey a man, whom I thought was Latino sat about 2 rows in back of us. He wore a cap the whole time (so did Duane) and his eyes had a way of boring through mine whenever we passed in the aisle. His intensity made me uncomfortable. At night, he had called someone on his cell and his voice was loud, like cell phone conversations often are, so I knew he was not speaking Spanish. I had no idea what language he might be speaking. I only knew that I was irritated because he was talking so loud and he had more than one conversation and one was very late and woke me up. The next day we stopped in Havre, near the Canadian border and the border patrol came into our car. Duane had gone out to stretch his legs and when he came back he said it was only our coach they went into. Two officers went about the car asking people about their citizenship. They did not ask anyone to show their ID except this man. He said he was from India, but he lived and worked in the U.S. and had a work visa. His papers must have checked out because they did not remove him from the train. My theory is that someone complained about him and thought he was a terrorist or something or just didn’t like the way he looked. Was it a good thing or a bad thing that the Border Patrol questioned him? Should I feel safer or less safe?

At a conference back in Portland a couple of weeks later, I find out that the Border Patrol is the largest armed force outside of the U.S. Army.

Minneapolis-St Paul—the train station is a long way from downtown. We can see the tall buildings from where we sit on the tracks. Here is where we meet up with the Mississippi River. We watch it from the lounge car. The river is wide, wide. Or is it high? Trees are standing in the river as if they had stepped down off the banks and gone wading in the shallows and the water is a scant few yard from someone’s trailer, from someone’s house and it all glides by us, soundlessly. “This is the Mississippi?” I ask the elderly gentleman who sits nearby. He agrees that it is. There are more teeth missing from his mouth than are left. His hair is greying, eyes yellowing, and there’s no extra flesh on him. He tells us that he is going to see his son in Arkansas or Alabama, someplace south. He’s on disability now, but he used to drive truck until his back got bad. Spends time with a nephew in Chicago sometimes, and time with his son down south. Another older man sits down near him and I see they both have drinks in hand. When we stop, they are disappointed because it’s not a smoking stop. Then a third man joins them and the three of them drink and talk about long-haul trucking and one of them was a riverman, piloted a tugboat. He talked about ramming a bridge with a tug, just a moment’s inattention at the wrong moment. Though they have had two or three drinks each they don’t weave or lurch any more than anyone else when they leave the lounge car to enjoy a smoke break at the next station.

The train rides along the Mississippi for a long way. Is there anyway to untangle this river from Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain? It is broad and slow and dreamy and it looks like it could carry you away until you weren’t yourself anymore. You know that it is a long snake of a river, that it starts up here, but it doesn’t end until it hits the Gulf of Mexico where the big water pushes back and the Mississippi spreads her fingers and lays down the silt she has been carrying and gives herself up to the power of the sea. The Rockies perform a continental divide, the Mississippi performs a different kind of division. What is on the other side of a river? Towns, cities, separated by rivers try to connect by ferry, by bridge or not at all. They form cultures distinct from one another. A river that is hard to cross–too deep, too rapid, or the too-wide Mississippi makes mythical the other side. Those people on the west bank, those people on the east bank, or the north or the south, depending on the curve of the river, who really knows them? It is not a street we can cross at any corner. Sometimes the river eats away the bank, cuts into some farm or some town and deposits the stolen land on someone else’s doorstep. Maybe it’s witchcraft, maybe it’s bad luck or good. In myth, a river separates one world from another. Whomever returns from the other side, returns as hero. You return from the water cleansed, transformed. The dead must cross the River Styx, the River Jordan to reside in the afterlife. Styx, the river of hate, encircles Hades nine times. So the land of the dead is surrounded by hate, not once, but nine times. But you only have to cross it once to get there. It’s coming back that is hard.

We ate dinner on the train, the night before Chicago, our second night. Our companions that evening were an obnoxious white guy who claims to have an extensive background managing restaurants and bars. With him was a very striking young black woman whom he hit on unmercifully while saying that there were no strings attached to the meal he was buying for her. By the end of the meal he had obtained a phone number from her. I hope she gave him a false number. I think she knew that he was full of crap.

We breakfasted with a man from Whitefish who had worked for the Board of Trade in Chicago where he grew up. He was on his way to join his wife and baby in Chicago and attend his 30th high school reunion. He said that he had left his job with the Board of Trade and gone to live in Whitefish and be a landscaper. He told us about the Union Station in Chicago and how amazing it was. Duane has been there before and agreed that it was stunning. Unfortunately, the old station was closed when we arrived in Chicago and Amtrak trains now debark passengers into the basement of a highrise building. There is nothing pleasant about it. It is stuffy and without any sort of interesting architectural detail or artwork. There are rows of plastic chairs filled with bored people who read, stare blankly, whimper and complain (not just the children), and every now and then the loudspeaker reminds us to be on the lookout for items—parcels or luggage left unattended and not to carry a package of any sort from a stranger onto the train.

We stowed our luggage in a locker. Costs $4 and hour, but the daily maximum was $12 so we weren’t going to be spending a fortune. The Lakeshore Limited, our connection, was due in two hours (it would have been four, but our train was late coming in), so we set out to walk to Lake Michigan. I think we set out in the right direction, but we weren’t sure and we turned back. The sky was really heavy with rain clouds and it did begin to rain. The rain got heavier and there was lightening. We took refuge under an awning of a drugstore. Since the rain did not look like it was going to let up, we went inside and spent way too much money on an umbrella. Even with the umbrella, the rain was so heavy that our pants were soaked in less than a block. We couldn’t find the train station, but did find a Starbucks and we went inside to ask directions and give me a chance to empty my bladder. Duane ordered a latte which turned out to be mostly steamed milk. You could hardly taste any coffee and the color was practically white. The bathroom was locked with no one in it and the baristas did not have a key. So I was dancing by the time we got back to the train station.

Surprise of all surprises, the Lakeshore was delayed in departing. Apparantly the air conditioning in the sleeper car was malfunctioning. So we all had to wait two hours while they tried to fix it and finally abandoned the effort and broke the news to the sleeper folks that they would have to ride in a coach. When we got on board there was a good deal of shuffling to make single travelors move so that couples and groups could travel together. The leg rests did not raise to full position so sleeping was more awkward. That problem and the rough tracks, mentioned earlier, combined to make for a less than restful night.

Travelog Part 1 – the journey begins

[Portland, OR —a dream the night before we left. I am in middle eastern country, Iran I decide. I am staying with a family, and it is dinnertime. I am nervous about not knowing the customs, and offending someone. The entire dream is imbued with a sense of anticipation. Suddenly, I am in a shop and there are two large framed objects in the center of the shop. The shopkeeper tells me I should look at them, but when I move them to see what it is, one falls over. At first I think it’s alright, but when I lift it back upright, I see that it is a mirror, and it is broken. I apologize to the shopkeeper, and he tells me not to worry, it is his fault for leaving them in the middle of the room. He has a scowl on his face, but I don’t know how to read it. Is he pissed at me, or is he just angry because of lost merchandise?

Shortly after this there is a loud rumbling sound. We run outside, and I am aware that a war is going on. Suddenly a plane comes out of the sky, and crashes in flames before us. EOD

Somehow, I think this dream has something to do with the impending vacation, so I include it here.

A found poem on the signs in Union Station:

arrivals departures
from the trains to the trains
to the trains waiting
room parcels news
cigars exit to street

okay, maybe it was an acid flashback, but it seemed like something at the time. —duane]

Sometimes the train rocks so violently that it seems likely it will jump the tracks. When it happens at night it wakes all but the heaviest sleepers. The tracks are rugged from Portland through the Rockies across Montana and North Dakota and up until Minneapolis-St Paul. Then it’s smooth as the tracks follow the Mississippi and on through Wisconsin all the way to Chicago. After Chicago the track worsens and is rougher than ever before. The train jumps and rolls, clanks and clatters its way through nothernmost Indiana and Ohio, through the narrowest bit of Pennsylvania and all the way to Rochester. It never seems to ride easy for very long. We left the train at Rochester so we don’t know about the ride from that point onward. On our return trip a couple of girls were in the front of our coach kept gasping as the train lurched and jerked. The train attendant allayed their fears. It was only after we got home that we found out there had been a train derailment along the Columbia near Carson and Wind River earlier this month. Perhaps the girls had been paying more attention to the news during the last few weeks that we had done. We are glad we didn’t know about it.

[Spokane, WA — We arrived in Spokane in the middle of the night. This is where the Portland leg and the Seattle leg of the Empire Builder are joined, so there is about a two hour wait. While sleeping I had a second trip-related dream:

I am on the train and it comes to the end of a track, going off of the rail and into a shopping mall. There is no fear associated with this. I get off of the train and am in Spokane. I have just moved here. As I am walking to my new apartment, I am confronted by four young men. One pulls a knife, and I realize that they are neo-nazis. I can tell that they are bluffing, so I walk away. They don’t follow. When I get to my apartment, my roommate is there. I have never met him before. The roommate, who is gay, is with a friend, and they want to go to an art studio they have something to do with. I wonder if he is an artist. They ask if I would like to go along. I say okay, but when we get outside, there is a parade going on. Some kind of childrens’ parade, but it is huge, and there is no way to get where we want to go without walking miles out of our way. Somehow we end up at the art studio, which is more like a gallery. This dream is very colorful. —Duane ]

An elderly couple sat across the aisle from us. They were heading to Fargo, ND and were from Astoria, OR. They really liked to travel by train the man confided. He talked about how his family meets up in Arizona every year. He had a tendency to repeat himself and to forget some of what I told him and would repeat questions I had already answered. He was a sweet old guy and was clearly having a good time. We hit Fargo around 4 am or later and I was fast asleep when they left the train.

It was late March and there was still snow on the ground in the western part of Montana. We went through Whitefish in the morning and a group of Junior High kids entrained. They were with us for a long way. Too long. They were very noisy and seemed to spill out everywhere, taking all the chairs in the lounge and all the tables in the lower lounge. It was a relief when they left the train.

Our eyes were mostly glued to the scene passing by our windows and somewhere in the mountains after Whitefish, out in a field in the snow we saw a man and a dog. The man was dancing and the dog was jumping. The man was lifting his legs up high in an exaggerated dance. It caught us so by surprise and we laughed. A number of people in our car saw him and laughed. Then I heard a woman up ahead say, “That’s my son. He told me to look for him. That’s his place. He says that he dances for the trains if he is out in the field when one goes by.” There is something about this that has captured my heart. His dance was pure joy and pure joy to watch. This man was dancing for his mother that morning, but most of the time he is dancing for strangers and his only reward is what he imagines. He cannot even know if people see him out there. At that distance he and the dog were just black figures against the white snow.

Also with us from somewhere in Washington until Minneapolis was a group of Missionaries-in-training led by a self-important fellow. In the evening (our second evening, their first & only), he gathered the eager group around him and explained that since they did not have the orientation that the groups normally get, he would be willing to provide this to them in the morning. The orientation would involve an overview of the Bible and he would conduct it in the train car. I did not think I was too loud when I said that I really did not want to be subjected to it. However, I was loud enough, according to Duane, that I apparantly gave courage to a woman a couple of rows up who loudly complained, “What about the rest of us? What if we don’t want to hear it?” The leader claimed that they would be very quiet. I don’t know what transpired, as we went for breakfast very early and sat in the lounge car afterward.