Travelogue: From sea to shining sea

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Highway 70, Glenwood Canyon (YouTube)
Highway 70, Glenwood Canyon (YouTube)

One more day until we dock at Southampton. I’ll spend a day in London to catch up with friends, and then head north for a week in a rented flat in York, a town I’ve only briefly visited before.

The ship’s crossing is comfortably quiet. I’ve gladly slipped into a nice rut of a routine, enjoying a daily walk circling the promenade thrice (at least a mile) followed by thorough exploration of the ship. I eschewed the elevator for the stairs yesterday as I ascended to the lookout above the 12th deck.

What a magnificent view! From that high up, on a clear day with an unobstructed view, you can see the whole circle of the horizon, impossible on most places on land. Even the enormous Queen Mary 2 seemed dwarfed by this shining expanse of blue sea, flecked here and there with a white cap. The sight was joyfully humbling.

I decided to enjoy a news blackout until reaching the U.K., a feat made the easier traveling by rail east to New York, and then again by the price of internet time on the ship. I have regained some perspective, away from the viciousness, polls and polarities. And I reaffirmed my conviction that, contrary to the beliefs of some, America has always been great.

The first morning of the train ride brought us through stretching fertile areas of Western Washington and the Willamette Valley: Vast fields, some freshly plowed, some recently harvested, second cuttings, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle … Staying so long in suburban Edmonds, one easily forgets the overwhelming fecundity and productivity of our large, sometimes messy and always wonderful country.

Something else struck me. South of Seattle, and at various other spots along the journey, lay long yards of machinery, of trucks, of construction materials — even abandoned industrial buildings — each evincing the potential energy of an America constantly in flux, thriving and wilting as time moves on, as new opportunities and technological innovations arise. Despite our ordered foundations in law of the Constitution, we are a country pronounced by great fluidity — always changing, always adapting.

My train companions were as equally encouraging as the scenery. The variety of people I met on my journey brought home the wide range of diversity in our country: A woman who writes books on Roman aqueducts, two teachers, even a Harvard alumnus truck driver traveling with his sister. I observed a racial mix as well — Asians, African Americans, and tourists from New Zealand and Australia. What a wonderful mixing bowl our country is!

This year’s trip loosely follows my previous train trip across the country on the northern Amtrak route, which has the advantage of stopping in Edmonds before heading east through the Cascades. To see more, I took the middle route south to Sacramento this year, which has the oddest station I have ever seen. The platforms are a distant walk from the hub building, down ramps, through tunnels, then back up ramps and over tracks  – all to reach a station with no food facilities, and this at about 6:30 in the morning, with the connection due at 11 a.m.!

From Sacramento, the rails head east-by-north through Utah and Nevada, then through Colorado, before reaching the infinitely flat stretches of Middle America, the region we coastal dwellers typically call flyover country. I want to take the southern route next year, or at least the next route south; rumor has it Amtrak will discontinue their southernmost route, down through New Orleans, in December.

I didn’t mind sleeping through much of Utah and into Nevada. Miles and miles of — miles. Here and there a very lonely farm or an abandoned house, but always a sort of emptiness we are unaccustomed to in our mountain-flanked, crowded Salish Sea. Oh, what a vast country!

The Zephyr eastbound and westbound trains meet in Glenwood Canyon. (Amtrak)
The Zephyr eastbound and westbound trains meet in Glenwood Canyon. (Amtrak)

Through Colorado, as the train slowly climbs to 8,500 feet, the scenery kept me glued to the window as we wound through the deep Glenwood Canyon and along the stupendous engineering marvel of Highway 70. So many astounding bridges and tunnels, double-decked where the canyon is too narrow, stand as testaments of American innovation and motivation, the same principles we embraced to raise and herald the unprecedented fleets and scientific discoveries of the Second World War (the biography of Admiral Nimitz is my ‘heavy reading’ for the trip).

Finally, a long descent to Denver, and night again.  

The stretch into Chicago blurs — flat, fertile, well-groomed towns, less of the garbage folks in western states (yep, Washington too) dump near the tracks. The design of Union Station, in Chicago, is extremely intuitive with the exception of one flaw reminiscent of Sacramento: No food in the waiting lounge. Reluctant to trail my suitcase around the station in search of food, I dined on several cups of mixed nuts and crunchies.

For reasons unclear, we New York-bound passengers were herded into a stifling, stuffy waiting room for half an hour before departure, and finally boarded in some confusion as to which car was which, as the cars were mislabeled.

For such a long trip (four nights) I heartily recommend a sleeper car. This year I tried a room as far as Chicago and then a roomette to New York. The rooms do have more space and slightly larger beds, as well as a shower (both have private toilets), and the roomettes are a squeeze, but next year I’ll settle for the roomette.

Amtrak, if you are reading this, fewer announcements please! It is not necessary to repeat all messages three times, or to announce that “I’m about to pass through the cars to collect dinner reservations.” Just do it! Also, please subdue the joker in the lounge, whose painfully witless refrains were unending: “I’m about to take an 11-minute break. Why? Because no one takes a ten-minute break!” Oh ho! … I’d rather not have my nap or reading interrupted so often by such rambling spiels.

The last night on the train from Chicago to New York was comfortable, but I missed the Hudson as I was on the wrong side of the train. Note to self: Next time request a roomette on the right side of the train!

I eventually arrived at the Algonquin in New York after my taxi drove to the wrong hotel, miles away from where I needed to be (I’m not sure which is worse, New York City cab drivers’ knowledge of the city or mastery of English.) After last year’s noisy hotel near Times Square, the Algonquin, the state’s oldest hotel, was a delight, and the food very good indeed. The french onion soup was the best I’ve ever had, and the Romanian bartender was a delight to talk to.

Hamlet, the hotel cat at the Algonquin, lazing on the reception desk. (The Algonquin)
Hamlet, the hotel cat at the Algonquin, lazing on the reception desk. (The Algonquin)

There is also Hamlet, the official hotel cat, to get to know. The Algonquin created the post in 1930, and Hamlet is the eighth hotel cat of that name. You can Instagram Hamlet at www.instagram.com/thealgonquincat. He is very friendly, and was lounging on the desk at reception when I checked out.

I took a taxi to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Halfway there, the driver advised me to get out and walk: We were trapped in gridlock. So I cross Central Park on foot to the museum, where I spent a delightful few hours looking at the Greco-Roman exhibits. I had no idea that there was any Greek silver, let alone so much of it!

My return driver also had no idea where the Algonquin was, and finally advised me to get out and walk, which I did — only six blocks. In the morning, the ship, with the usual massively inefficient check-in, and then the clean, wonderful Queen Mary 2.

As I wrote about the ship and the passage on the last two trips, I will spare readers further enthusiasm and love for this wonderful, stately way to travel. There are no airport lines, security searches or shoe removal, limitless foot room and – dare I say it? – the food blows airline grub out of the sky!  

Tomorrow I reach Southampton, only 11 days since leaving Seattle …

So, what have I gained? A renewed conviction in this country of ours which, even with its odd faults and shortcomings, never stopped being great. A refreshed sense of the inclusion and diversity of America, an enormous network of food production and distribution with vast wild lands still ripe with potential. Could a government or state agency offer eligible homeless families a new start claiming and maintaining more farmland in exchange for housing stability and income? (Those of you who confuse buzzwords with actual ideas may hiss “socialism” or “social engineering” and continue to shut your ears).

I am convinced: When leadership is more interested in country than party, with politicians who strive to build consensus and not wedges; with dreamers and doers less afraid of difference and change and more devoted to innovation and flexibility; with a population who demand competence from their elected representatives, with less spin, less division, more compassion, and more willingness to realize our differences are more often a matter of “how to do it” than “what needs to get done.” With a focus on these ideals, America will continue to be great, and by insisting on the principles of goodwill and equality for all, we can be even greater.

And what a wonderful way to grow one’s perspective is a trip by rail across our colorful and vibrant land, from sea to shining sea!

I’ll arrive in London tomorrow for two nights, then on to old York, where there will be much more to see and report.

— By Nathaniel Brown

Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement seven years ago.

3 Replies to “Travelogue: From sea to shining sea”

  1. Happy to see you’ve slipped into your travel shoes again, Nathanial! I look forward to reading about your new adventures in my grandfather’s country.

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  2. I so enjoy being an armchair traveler while reading your reports. Thank you for your encouraging observations and wonderful descriptions! I look forward to reading more.

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