Publisher’s note: This is the sixth and final segment on the train trip adventures of Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here and Part 5 here.
After arriving in Chicago from New York, the next day I had a ticket for the Chicago Arts Institute, one of the greatest art museums in America. As fatigue from the trip was adding up, I spent less time in the museum than I’d have liked, but I did spend considerable time in the Graeco-Roman section, which displays some very good things indeed, including a complete, life-size, bronze of the young Dionysos, one of the very, very few wholly intact Greek bronzes to survive down to our times. Other wonders are some marvelous Hydria, Kylixes, and Kraters, mostly red-ware, as well as a head of Antinous, which has recently been reunited with the half that was broken off in antiquity. But I have to register a serious criticism: Too many of the various vases are placed against a wall, making it impossible to see the painting on the reverse, and the Dionysos, the first thing you see when you enter the wing, is placed in front of a window, which on any sort of bright day makes him little more than a silhouette against the glare, and very hard to study.
The Institute houses, among its many other treasures, the familiar Seurat “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte” and my favorite, the very damp “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” by Gustave Caillebotte. Both are far larger than expected, the Caillebotte measuring 83.5” by 108.7’, and at such a size, they fairly leap out of the canvas. It is an experience utterly unlike seeing these paintings in a picture, no matter how carefully photographed. This unexpected, extra vividness and “life” has to do with texture, as well as size – I remember seeing Rembrandt’s “Man in a Golden Helmet” in Berlin in 1966; Rembrandt almost splattered the golden-yellow paint of the helmet on with a knife or spatula, and the facets of the thick, rough paint actually glitter. Seurat and Caillebotte applied paint differently of course, but nonetheless, the texture of the paint and the brushstrokes is an essential part of the impact of a great painting seen “live.”
This was my last day before returning home, so I felt honor-bound to give a Chicago-style pizza one more try, our unconvincing 2019 experience having stuck to our memories like chewing gum to a shoe. A few blocks from the hotel is the Exchequer Restaurant and Pub, where I told the very nice waitress that I wanted the “full Chicago pizza treatment.” This was The Chicago – “Italian sausage, Italian beef, onion, giardiniera.” (I confess to having been ignorant as to what giardiniera was – it’s also called “sottaceti” — “under vinegar” –and in this case, it means a spicy flavoring, a “hot mix.”) I normally order a small pizza, but the waitress said “Uh, uh – get the ‘personal,'” bless her for the warning! These deep-dish affairs are to be treated with a respect. As hungry as I was, I couldn’t finish even the “personal.” Was it good? Well, it beat the 2019 ultra-bland, tomato-casserole-in-a-crust thing six ways to Sunday, but did I like it? I think I’ll stick with Pagliacci, or Edmonds’ own superlative Niles Peacock!
And that was it – almost. In the morning, I took a taxi to Union Station, braving the wrath of the seemingly ever-angry gorgon who jealously guards the entrance to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge. She is the same person of avenging fury who has been on duty at the Lounge every time I have been in Chicago, and her announcements are both long and darkly threatening. Aside from the odd informative announcement, she takes great relish in telling us what not to do (crowd, rush, ask her any questions… no, I made that last one up, but it is the impression she creates). “Revenge, Revenge! the Gorgon cries / See the furies arise / See the snakes that they rear, / How they hiss in her hair, / And the sparks that flash in her eyes!” (Adapted, with apologies, from Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto for Handel’s Alexander’s Feast.)
Amtrak describes the Metropolitan Lounge as “A new level of luxury to Amtrak travelers who are seeking a spot of respite.” Well, there’s something to be said for being confident enough to be able to say that sort of thing without blushing, and the chairs are more comfortable than the wooden ones in the Great Hall… so some leeway room must be given to the copy writer for doing what is, after all, his job.
Two final nights passed in a cozy sleeper on the westward-bound Empire Builder. On Day Two we encountered the remains of a blizzard that had hit North Dakota a day or two before and had reduced the railroads to a chaos of delayed and stranded trains. The effects of the blizzard were visible where plow engines had forced a way through snowdrifts in the deeper cuts, and to cap off the trip, we sat cumulatively for almost seven hours waiting for various freights to extricate themselves and trundle by.
Once through the snow zone, we crossed the rugged Bad Land terrain, and I was struck again by the austere beauty of North Dakota, and how — despite seemingly endless miles of what seems like cold and empty desert — people still manage to claw a living out of the place through hard work and determination – and, I suspect, a love of this dramatically unhospitable land.
All the delays were certainly frustrating, but it did mean that it was full day when we arrived in Spokane in the morning, and the trip up the Columbia to Wenatchee and Leavenworth, and then through the mountains were, were all in broad day. This part of the trip has always been in the dark before, and the views and the Northwest scenery are a dramatic welcome home.
Gazing out the windows at the rocks and trees of our Northwest corner, I could smell the woods, feel the grass on the slopes, and was back 30 or more years in my imagination, training with the world-class cross-country skiers who used to come to the family ranch near Princeton, BC, to stay and train and share the woods and trails. Ponderosa, sudden glimpses of an old road, a game trail seen out the window of the train — I could almost smell it and feel it beneath my feet again, three-hour-long runs in the hills, kayaking in the lakes, roller skiing the roads. I was never much as a racer myself, but I was incredibly privileged to train with some of the best: Josh Thompson (USA), Silver at the 1987 Biathlon World Championships; Öjan Blomquist (Sweden), twice overall World Loppet Champion; Thomas Wassberg (Sweden) seven golds at the Olympics and World Championships; Justin Wadsworth (USA) four Olympics and the best Olympic relay finish in U.S. history; Antti Leppävuori and Marko Gracer, head coaches of Finland and Slovenia respectively, and dozens, if not hundreds, of young, Northwest-based athletes who were there as well over the years.
Please excuse the diversion — an old guy looking back through the train window at his past. But that was what was in my head as we crossed the eastern side of the Cascades. Glorious, rich days and memories.
Then we arrived in Everett and had a final wait for a freight, and finally rain-spattered, green Edmonds! After 22 states, four cities, enormous climate contrasts and seven nights on a train, time to rest a bit from the trip, decide whether to wash or just burn all the dirty laundry, and get back to my garden and to that most- wonderful word in the language – home,
Epilogue and PS: A few random observations and thoughts:
Perhaps Amtrak, until and if they can sort out some sort of right-of-way, should remove all times from their schedules, as these are either innocent conjecture or hopeless optimism, and replace them with dates. “Your train is due Tuesday.” And please, please Amtrak – some variety, perhaps regional, in your meals. They have improved, but identical menus on every train?
Why do people wave at trains? I have a theory that it’s because a train is going somewhere, and for a brief moment you feel that uplift of new horizons, different places, adventure. I know I have the bug!
The West Coast seems to regard the railroads as the world’s longest trash dump. Everywhere up and down the coast the amount of garbage along the tracks is gross and appalling. The number of abandoned mattresses and stolen shopping carts alone would outfit a large hotel and several large chain stores. I saw nothing like this in the East. Why, with greater population density, does the East have so much less of this lazy carelessness?
Chicago, and to a slightly lesser extent New York, are clean – few people sleeping in the streets, no encampments, no needles, no obvious drug deals going down. At least this is true in the centers – so why can’t downtown Seattle manage the same?
Thanks to all who have borne with me through this trip sharing delays, escalators, and sore feet.., and all those oysters!
— By Nathaniel Brown
Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden. He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement.
Yes, that is absolutely why I wave at trains! Something deep in our souls that wants to greet our fellow pilgrims…after all, as Anne Lamont says…we are all just walking each other home!
I loved this adventure and hate to see it come to an end. I have definitely been inspired to try a train trip. Thank you Nathaniel for allowing us to follow along and escape for a bit. I hope you have recovered from the escalator incident. Looking forward to hearing about the next trip!
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