The Dinosaur goes to the Dakotas – or not
We left Las Vegas at a reasonable hour, which should have tipped us off to something. Amtrak provided a bus that took us to Bakersfield, since no passenger trains run to Las Vegas, a premier tourist destination. At Bakersfield, we would board the train to Martinez, California, and from there, on to Portland. We were told our bus was more comfortable than a Greyhound, and it was true because we had ample leg room for once. However, I seemed to have one of only two seats with the armrest upside down, so even though I would have enjoyed a short nap, I was worried about the bus going around a curve and dumping me out into the aisle.
Later on, when we stopped in Barstow, I watched a woman setting in the front seat, casually reach over and flip another upside down armrest in place for a lady sitting across from her. I tried to do what she did, however it didn’t work, so I spent most of the ride to Martinez trying to figure out how to flip up my own armrest. I pushed and pulled the armrest and looked for some sort of button or lever, all in a nonchalant manner, as though that really wasn’t what I was doing. I mean, I’m a guy, for God’s sake, and guys can do anything mechanical; I wasn’t going to call attention to my efforts. I tried to project an attitude that said if I wanted the armrest upright, I would have put the armrest up. Right!
We made a lunch stop at the Barstow Station, along with about a dozen other buses, and were amazed at how such a crush of humanity got fed, watered, and toileted in short order. There were people everywhere, buying food, knick-knacks, and tee-shirts that said dumb things like “I (heart) Barstow,” as if that were really possible. Even the Barstow Chamber of Commerce doesn’t (heart) Barstow.
English was not the language of choice, but then again, neither was Spanish, so I didn’t feel put upon. Most of the people pushing toward the various food outlets appeared to be either Japanese, Korean, or worst of all, Chinese, because the Chinese might be sending undercover auditors here to check out their investments before calling in their loans to us. You never know.
Our driver told us we had twenty-five minutes until the bus pulled out, so we should hop to it. Patsy and I accomplished our mission and wolfed down veggie burritos and horchatas within the time parameter. I’m used to the drill sergeant-type drivers, who mean twenty-five minutes when they say twenty-five minutes, but this driver actually did a head count and waited an extra ten minutes for some stragglers, a young couple obviously in love. He was a real wuss. The couple acted as if it were natural to wait for them. They got back onto the bus and promptly merged into one corporate being that would have taken a surgeon with a laser to separate.
We swung around to the old Barstow train station, which is now a museum, on the off chance that someone may not have recognized the change and was waiting there for the next train. We did the same thing four or five times before we got to Bakersfield. Nobody ever got on the bus, but we were able to use the restrooms in Mojave.
When we reached Bakersfield, we de-bused to pick up our baggage and go get our tickets. By the time we got into the terminal, the clock on the wall said it was 3:35. Our train was supposed to leave at 3:45, and we were at the back of a long line. There were only two ticket windows open. A woman stood at one of them, trying to arrange for passage to LA on the next day. She and the ticket agent were involved in some sort of complicated negotiations, and we were about twelve people behind her. Well, I figured there was no way we were going to make it, especially since a conductor was on the mike, announcing boarding was now taking place. I had visions of the time when we were at the Toronto airport and we almost missed our flight because the line was held up by a flight inspector who wanted to “wand” every zipper on my computer case. At that time, I had visions of us having to stay in Toronto and learn to speak French.
Patsy kept telling me to relax, that they probably wouldn’t leave without us, but I was heaping silent abuse on the woman who was tying up the line. Finally, when we got to the window I saw the official time clock beside the ticket desk – the clock in the lobby was about fifteen minutes fast and we had plenty of time. I sauntered to the train, just to show I wasn’t worried about being late.
We soon found ourselves sitting in very comfortable seats in an observation car, watching the scenery scroll past us. The train was an improvement from some we have taken before, in that there were loads of choices for seating; there was a snack bar where we could get coffee; and when you lifted the toilet seat, you weren’t staring at the railroad track under the train. By this time the sun was going down; mostly what we saw were dusky fields stretching off into the horizon. The menu in the snack bar was limited to snacks, some cellophane wrapped sandwiches, or a couple of things that could be tossed into a microwave. The sandwiches didn’t look all that great, so we ate multicolored micro-waved burritos that stuck to the wrapping paper, and drank bottled iced tea.
Well, not quite. While we were in Bakersfield, a young man came by and checked our bags for us. We thought this was a nice gesture until we realized the full implications of what we had done. We had put our jackets inside our bags because the weather in Las Vegas was hot, however as the day progressed, we got into cooler places. When we got to the Martinez station, there was a cool breeze blowing. That’s when we learned we weren’t going to see the baggage again until the next afternoon in Portland. We were cold, but our jackets were still in our bags, along with our clean socks, our change of clothes, and our clean unmentionables. It was a lesson learned: we promised ourselves we wouldn’t make that same mistake again… not with so many other mistakes we can make.
While we were in the Martinez station, a young man panhandled us for a buck. When I gave him the money, he turned around and bolted for the door, almost like he thought I would ask for it back, or maybe more like because he now had the money for a six-pack. Either way, about five minutes later, a little old guy who could have been the model for a troll doll, came over and told us the young man had just collapsed trying to cross the street, and it was somehow my fault because I gave him a dollar. He cautioned me to never give a panhandler money. I said I did it because you never know, the person asking for spare change might be an angel, and who would want to stiff an angel, but the little old guy actually cackled at me and repeated that you never give a panhandler money. I think he really was a troll.
We had gotten to Martinez at about 9:00, and had to wait until 10:45 for our train, and the temperature kept dropping. It never got extremely cold, but even so, Patsy and I huddled together for warmth. We finally entrained and found our compartment before we got too uncomfortable.
Our sleeping compartment was just borderline tiny – that is to say, over the borderline. We had to turn sideways to get inside. Once in the compartment, we had to do a sideways shuffle to get back and forth past one another. We did have a private shower/toilet however, which was good, because at a certain time in one’s life, not having to toddle down a hallway to stand in line to pee is a desirable thing.
Our water closet was one of those where you not only can do what you need to do while sitting down, but also take a shower at the same time, sort of a full body bidet. Unfortunately, it was not as well located as the one we had on the train in Australia. The toilet in the Australian train was right across from the bunks, so that I could lean across the gap, grab the top of the door and swing from the top bunk directly into the room. To use this WC, I had to undo a safety web that kept me from falling out of my bunk, put one foot on a tiny ladder and the other onto the lower bunk, while trying not to step on Patsy. After that, I only had to take one more step and I was inside.
Trying to sleep on this train was an interesting experience, and I don’t recall it being this way in Australia, but it must have been. The car rolled like a boat and jerked around as it groaned and made other noises. We got nudged in two different directions at the same time while listening to what sounded like a large, unpleasant animal suffering. Nevertheless we were both able to fall asleep at last, and I only had to do the aerial ballet twice.
Because the dining car had to accommodate everyone, the waiter had to make sure all the booths were filled. We ended up having breakfast with two young ladies we had never met before. One of them told us she had hiked around Asia by herself, but now that she was back in the United States, she couldn’t get away from her extended family. While we were eating, at least three of them came by and signaled to her that they were all gathering at the back of the car and that she should join them there; she just kept talking.
The other young lady was an interesting study of contrasts. She was from Alabama, but didn’t have an accent. Her blond hair was long, but one side of her head shaved so she could punk it up if she wanted to, or have the long hair cover the shaved area if needed. She had a number of piercings in both ears, a small jewel stuck in her lower lip, a standard tongue piercing, and a small ring in her nose. She said she was in advertising art and could find work wherever she wanted to, but right now, she was headed to Vancouver. This caught our attention, since we knew of at least two other couples headed there. We asked if there was some sort of event going on, but she said there was nothing that she knew of. Apparently, everyone was just going to a pretty town.
Meanwhile, the countryside was an interesting mixture of forest and farms. In some places, the train seemed so close to the mountain, that if the windows opened, we could have picked flowers off the hillside. We passed through the club car going to and from the dining car. The conductor had been asked everyone to limit their stay in the car to about half an hour so that everyone had a chance to view the scenery, but there were some folks who looked like they had taken out homesteads on their seats.
When we got to Portland, it was in the afternoon. Since neither of us had slept all that well, Patsy and I looked a little woebegone; however, with a shower and a change of clothes, we were back to being street ready. We stayed at the Vintage Plaza hotel, a very posh place in the old fashioned sense of the word. Our bellhop du jour was named Cody. He took us under his barely-out-of-his-teens wing, toted our bags, showed us where the miniature bottles of over price booze was kept, brought some ice, and generally went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. I probably should have tipped him more, but he seemed to be grateful for the little I gave him.
Later on, we met another young man named Faisel, from Saudi Arabia. He was in the US studying to become a civil engineer, and was having his first ever glass of wine. The hotel offered a free wine tasting after six in the evening, so we all had a glass, or two. We talked for a long time until our friends showed up. As we left, we asked Cody to keep an eye on Faisel because he didn’t see what the big deal was with wine, and we all know that way lies a terrific hangover.
Our friends Piers and Rachelle Munro live in Portland, so they knew where to take us for a grand tour of the town and then to a fine dinner. They explained that the train station is in Portland’s equivalent of San Francisco’s Castro District, and we hadn’t just gotten in on the last of a Gay Pride parade. We weren’t sure, since we had seen a whole lot of people in various stages of dress or undress, lots of rainbow flags, and so forth. I bet it would have required only one drum major to have turned the thoroughfare into a parade.
Our first stop was down by the waterfront, where we walked around and looked at the boats. There was one sailboat, probably a 35 footer, which sported a really fine rowboat on its back deck. The small boat was a truly a work of art, all glossy with different colored woods for the keel and for the sides of the boat. It even had hand carved oars. We complimented the boat owner on the small dinghy and learned that unfortunately, it leaked when you put it in water… but it was sure pretty.
After a lovely dinner and a tasty beer, Piers drove us around for a while longer until we ended up at an Irish bar named Kells. There we enjoyed some rousing Irish music provided by a young man who played guitar and mouth harp quite well. He was singing “Finnegan’s Wake” when we walked in, so we were able to sing along with him.
We all drank beer and were having a great time when I noticed the ceiling was covered in what looked like green bowties, so I asked our waiter what that was all about. He said that if you wrapped two quarters inside a dollar bill and threw it against the ceiling hard, the whole thing would stick there. He said that they left the dollar bills on the ceiling until once a year, when they swept them down and gave the money to charity. Now I just happened to have two quarters and a dollar bill, so I said I would double his tip if he showed me how the trick was done. The waiter put the two quarters in the middle of the dollar bill and twisted it up like a salt-water taffy. He stepped away from us because he said that sometimes the bill fell back down and he didn’t want us to get hit. Then he just tossed the twisted bill up to the ceiling and the darned thing stuck there! Really! Piers claimed the waiter put something on the dollar, but I didn’t see it, so I am still mystified about what keeps the bundles up there. Finally, after a rousing hour at the Irish bar, Piers and Rachelle took us back to the hotel. What a great start for the vacation.
One drawback, however… I was developing a stye, and my eye itched like crazy. Thanks to all the beer, I had to get up several times during the night, so each time I did, I put a warm compress on my eye. By morning however, my eye was swollen shut. I walked around with my dark glasses on for the rest of the day.
After breakfast, we went down to Courthouse square where there was a Farmer’s Market going on. We found a place to sit for a while and listened to a swing band play some Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey hits. There was a short man who danced around in front of the orchestra before he came over and tried to get some little kids to dance with him. They didn’t, of course; little kids don’t like to be approached by a stranger doing something odd, but a bunch of them went out on the plaza later on and danced by themselves. It was a pretty sight to see, all these little guys having fun.
After a while we decided to hike over to the Powell Book Store, one of the largest in the world, I would suppose. We grabbed a couple of ‘Estrellas’, Mexican Danish (oxymoron?) to eat on our way over to the book store. The Estrellas were about the size of a large saucer, soft, and tasted like the pastry was made with cream cheese.
At Powell, we were overwhelmed by how many books have been written and how few of them make it to the top: best seller lists, awarded prizes, and getting on required reading lists for college – things like that. After visiting the store, we stopped at another small park and heard a busker playing his guitar and singing. I thought about all the books we had seen at Powell, and about those of us who write without the slightest hope of getting on a best seller list or winning a prize. I realized that we of the unwashed and unknown writing community are literary buskers who figuratively take our writings out to the park and offer them to strangers for spare change.
Portland is a great city for walking. It’s green, it has a lot of interesting places, and a lot of small parks where people can gather to eat lunch or just talk. This is what makes a city worth living in, and I think that a great city is one where we can all come together with others like or unlike ourselves, to be out and about in a desirable milieu, and freely be ourselves without fear.
After lunch, Piers and Rachelle took us back to the train station where we were ushered into a VIP lounge. We were VIPs because we had a sleeping compartment, not because we were all that fancy, although we did carry jackets this time. The train station was very clean, but it had an old feeling about it, like something out of the 1930s. I could imagine Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall racing across the platform to catch a train in this station. That was okay with me, because I like that kind of nostalgia.
A new disaster strikes!
After waiting for several hours, we were told that all train service east of Montana had been cancelled because of flooding! We later found out that the floods were caused by those darned Canadians, melting their snow packs early, oh, and that a lot of rain was falling as well. We had been going to Minot, North Dakota, but learned that the town was now being evacuated. Heck! We missed all the fun.
Two days later, we saw pictures of the motel where we were planning to stay, and if our room had been on the second floor, everything would have worked out, although driving might have been problematic.
When we heard our train had been cancelled, I got on the telephone and called for a room at the hotel where we had stayed the night before, only to find out that it was totally booked, and that all the other hotels around there were also full. So, not only were we stuck in the station with no place to go, but we were also homeless, and I was down to 50% vision capabilities. Fortunately, Piers and Rachelle were home and they were willing to take us in for the night, however, they were supposed to leave the day after for Hawaii, and we could only count on the one night. That was okay, because we were planning on going back to Las Vegas as soon as we could, so our timing was, well, timely.
By now, my eye looked like I had a tomato taped to my face. Between my wild flyway hair and my eye, I believe I would have scared horses… well at least that’s what I felt like. We were going to stay in Minot for a couple of days, and I had planned to see a doctor there, but now we needed to change our plans in more ways than one.
Rachelle picked us up at the station and took us back to their house. I had to call all the B&Bs and hotels to disassemble our vacation, but first I called the airline for a flight back to Las Vegas; that’s when things got complicated. We had already used all our air miles for a flight back from Sioux Falls to Las Vegas at the end of our Dakota tour. Normally, if we had to cancel a flight, the airline would just give us credit toward another flight sometime in the next twelve months. However, either because it was an Act of God that made us cancel or flight, or that the airline was going to fly us first class for free because they had no cabin seats left on the day of our flight, they were willing to do something different this time. The airlines would reinstate our air miles for a mere $125, and then we could use some of those same miles to get us home on an Alaskan Airways plane for $30. What a deal.
It only took a couple of other phone calls to cancel the entire trip. The motel in Minot was very understanding about our cancellation; so was the car rental place. I think I heard the sound of running water in the background when I called these places, but I couldn’t be sure.
The next day, Rachelle took me to a clinic, where the doctor saw me within fifteen minutes. Miraculous! The forms they used at the clinic were laminated with plastic, and they gave me a Sharpie to write down my information. After I was done, they ran the sheets through a reader, which put the information directly into their computer, and then the computer guy wiped the sheets clean so they were ready for the next person. This was obviously a Socialist plot: quick service, green record keeping, and an immediate rapport with the doctor. It all sounded very un-American… almost Canadian. The doctor looked at my eye and confirmed that I did indeed have a doozy of a stye and gave me a prescription to help get rid of it.
It took about half an hour to get my prescription filled, during which time, we found a used book store that was less intimidating that Powell, and bought a couple of things to read on the airplane.
Back to Las Vegas and on to LA
After we got back home, we still had some days set aside for a vacation and we still had money left, so we decided to go visit our friends Bob and Claire Bellanti down in LA. They had asked us to come down anyway, and this would be a great opportunity. The drive down was uneventful if somewhat déjà vu… it seemed like we had come this way only a couple of days before.
We got settled in at Bob and Claire’s and had a great time that night with our friends, as well as Ken and Susana Ashton. Before going to bed, we laid out some plans for the next couple of days so we didn’t get in the way, and to keep us from being bored or feeling as though we had lost our vacation.
Saturday found Patsy and me at the Skirball Museum, where they had an excellent exhibit on Houdini, as well as their standing collection of Judaica and their truly delightful Noah’s Ark exhibit. The Houdini show was very informative: I had no idea that most of the great magicians in the early 1900s were Jewish. They also had one of the straight jackets Houdini used for his escapes, one of the trunks he used for his illusions, and some of his manacles. There were lots of posters and displays of other things related to magic. We spent about an hour trailing behind a tour guide who didn’t seem to mind that we weren’t part of her group.
They have a Noah’s Ark exhibit that was worth the trip over to the Skirball by itself. This exhibit is so popular that you have to have a reservation to go in, and you can only stay for two hours.
Imagine the love child of Dr. Suess and Rube Goldberg being presented to the world by FAO Schwarz, and that’s what the Noah’s Ark exhibit was like. The animals ranged from total junk sculptures – such as two birds whose bodies were boxing gloves with paint brushes for legs and heads made of badminton birds and oil cans – to mixtures of carefully sculpted parts combined with things like ceiling turbines, springs, ropes, and so forth to make up the rest of their bodies. Mexican folk sculptures peered over shelves and peeked out at us from all over the place. There was an elephant head made out of ropes, that trumpeted every time someone pulled a lever to raise its trunk. There was even an exhibit where you could create a lightening storm or make a rainfall. They had a Habitrail above the sculptures, just for kids; too bad, because it looked like fun.
We wrapped up the evening going to a play about the Cambodians living in Long Beach, a play called “Zero Year.” The theater was small and our seats were close to the stage, which was nice, because we got more involved with the play that way.
Downtown in LA
Saturday found us traipsing around the old downtown of LA. We saw the Bradley Building, a beautiful and historic building, full of wrought iron and sculpted wood. I might have appreciated it a bit more if we hadn’t had to walk around the lobby next to the wall because the janitor was mopping the floor, and I hadn’t been looking for a restroom.
Necessity pushed us along from the lovely Bradley Building to a utilitarian Subway shop, where we bought coffee and cookies so that I could use the Customers Only restroom. We sat for a while, drinking colored water that claimed to be coffee and looked across the street to the Million Dollar Theater.
The Million Dollar Theater was Grauman’s first theater, he of the Chinese Theater fame, and had a Spanish Colonial Revival theme across the front. There were also life sized sculptures all over the building, and for some reason, buffalo heads and cow skulls. The marquee advertised the movie “Zoot Suit,” although whether this was true or if the theater was now closed down and that was the last movie shown there, we couldn’t tell.
When we left the Subway, we glanced in at the Grand Central Market (more on that later) and then headed uphill toward the Disney Hall. Disney Hall is a grand structure, composed of what may be great big stainless steel sheets, making it look like the world’s biggest De Lorean. We think it was designed by the same guy who designed the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, although that one had a lot of curves to it, and the Disney Hall was more angular. After the long climb up to the hall, we sat around the really pretty plaza for a while, listening to the monumental fountain. Since today was a hot day, we needed time to catch our breaths, and of course there were public restrooms to be looked at. Being old makes one appreciative of restrooms.
After we recovered, we moved along to the Los Angeles Cathedral, which is a very interesting structure. It also had a more angular look to it, although the walls were of stone and not stainless steel. A bell tolled directly above our heads as we entered, almost scaring the bejesus out of me, and I looked up at a carillon of bells, none of which actually worked, but each of which had a speaker inside it. Again, the day was hot and there was a pleasant patio, plus nearby restrooms, so we had something to drink and a snack. We bought an odd pastry, something they tried to tell us was a Napoleon. While it had a flaky crust that turned soggy next to the a cream filling like a Napoleon does, it looked more like a quesadilla, but it was all decorated up with almonds and powdered sugar. Although it tasted okay, it wasn’t a Napoleon.
Inside, the cathedral was beautiful, spacious, and cool. There were wall sconces scattered around, and when we got close to a couple of them, we saw they were angels with wings made of free-form pieces of brass. There were also two long murals painted on canvas, of various saints proceeding toward the altar. A mass had just ended, so we walked around quietly, trying to be unobtrusive and looking at the art work, when we noticed a security guard following us. Now I know I am not the most reputable looking person in the world, but come on, I had Patsy with me: she’s reputable. Anyway, as we started down into the mausoleum area, I turned to him and said hello and asked if it was okay for us to go down there. He shrugged his shoulders, but stopped following us… at least until we came back up to the main chapel. By that time, we were headed toward the door anyway, so I suppose this gave him some relief.
We walked back down toward the Metro station, which took us by the Angel Flight, a small funicular that traveled a couple of blocks up the hillside. I suppose this must have been much longer once upon a time, because I can’t see building something this complex just for two or three steep blocks. Of course, we did take the ferry at Englishtown in Nova Scotia, and there the boat traveled all of 400 feet from bank to bank, so maybe this was the extent of the funicular.
We finally spent some time at the Grand Central Market, which is like an indoor Farmer’s Market, but with stalls. The market has been operating in the same location since 1917, so this is not a slap-dash put together operation, even though it felt like an indoor carnival. You can buy groceries there, as well as prepared food, ice cream cones, bakery stuffs, and more. You can even get your eyebrows threaded (whatever that is) and have a massage right there on the premises if you wanted. We found some young asparagus at a ridiculously low price by Las Vegas standards, so we bought a couple of bunches for dinner.
We see the sign.
Believe it or not, after all the times we had been to LA, I had never seen the Hollywood sign. On Monday morning, Ken and Susana, took us all out to the Los Angeles Farmers Market for crepes. The Farmers Market is a hodge-podge of food stalls and trinket shops, with food from all over the world – sort of like the Grand Central Market, but without a roof overhead. There was a stand selling Spanish tapas near our French crepe stall, and just up from there was another stall that sold borekas (a sandwich made with phyllo and various fillings). After the crepes, Susana bought a jacks set and demonstrated her amazing skill; I bet she was a jacks shark when she was a kid. I didn’t even try to play because I know my own limitations, I just tried to get one of the jacks to spin, but I wasn’t very good at that either.
On the way back home, we stopped at the Kodak Theater where they present the Oscars. They have a big façade of a Babylonian palace built there, a reproduction of the largest film set ever made. We walked out on a viewing area between the theater and the façade, where I could see the Hollywood sign very clearly, even with one eye. What great friends! Not only did we get our vacation rescued twice, but we also got taken to a place where we had crepes and great coffee, plus I got to see the Hollywood sign, and there were restrooms nearby, too!
Speaking of Oscars, that night we went to a screening of Douglas Fairbank’s Robin Hood, a silent film that more or less set the character for all following characterizations of the robber. The film was shown in the theater for the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, so we felt very privileged. There was an organ down near the stage, that had been modified to reproduce the sounds of some of the great pipe organs in other parts of the United States. Ain’t technology great? The young man who provided the background music for the silent film, played wonderfully for a couple of hours without letting up.
The wrap up
The next morning, we went to the Getty, because how can you go to LA without seeing the Getty? They had a display of illuminated books and manuscripts that has convinced me the scribes who did these marvels must have been under four feet tall, with really tiny hands and really tiny quill pens, considering how small the calligraphy was in some of the books. There were illustrations along with the small text, so tiny that if you could get at them at all, you could cover them up with just a thumb, and these were all polychrome and had gold leaf on them! Genius!
We had spent almost a week visiting friends both in Portland and LA; we had feasted well, seen the sights – including the Hollywood sign – and had a marvelous time. Now it was time for us to go home, and although we had not seen the Dakotas or Mt. Rushmore, we hadn’t gotten flooded out, either, so it had been a grand time. We send our thanks to Piers and Rachelle, Bob and Claire, and Ken and Susana for making us welcome and saving our vacation. Oh, and by the way, I finally got to take my dark glasses off after we got home.
Until the next time, thanks for coming along on our adventure.