Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final segment in the train travel 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 to the Chicago Arts Institute, one of America’s largest art museums. With travel fatigue building up, I spent less time in the museum than I would have liked, but I did spend a lot of time in the Greco-Roman section, which has some very good stuff indeed, including a complete life size bronze of the young Dionysus, one of the very, very few fully intact Greek bronzes to have survived to the present day. Other marvels are marvelous Hydria, Kylixes and Kraters, mostly in red ceramic, and a head of Antinous, which was recently reunited with the half that was broken in antiquity. But I have to make a serious criticism: too many various vases are placed against one wall, which makes it impossible to see the painting on the back, and the Dionysus, the first thing you see when entering the wing, is placed in in front of a window, which on any bright day makes him but a silhouette against the glare, and very difficult to study.
The Institute houses, among its many other treasures, Seurat’s familiar “A Sunday on the Grand Jatte” and my favourite, the very wet “Rue de Paris, rainy day”, by Gustave Caillebotte. Both are much larger than expected, with the Caillebotte measuring 83.5 inches by 108.7 feet, and at such a size they jump quite off the canvas. It is quite a different experience to see these paintings in a photograph, however carefully photographed. This unexpected and extra liveliness and “life” is related to the texture, as well as the size – I remember seeing Rembrandt’s “The Man in the Golden Helmet” in Berlin in 1966; Rembrandt has almost splattered the golden yellow paint on the helmet with a knife or spatula, and the facets of the thick, rough paint actually sparkle. Seurat and Caillebotte applied the paint differently of course, but nevertheless, the texture of paint and brushstrokes is an essential part of the impact of a large painting seen “live”.
It was my last day before heading home, so I felt honored to try Chicago-style pizza one more time, as our unconvincing experience in 2019 stuck in our memories like a chewing gum. 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 “complete Chicago pizza treatment”. It was the Chicago – “Italian sausage, Italian beef, onion, giardiniera.” (I admit I didn’t know what giardiniera was – it’s also called “sottaceti” – “under vinegar” – and in this case it means a spicy aroma, a “hot mix”.) I normally order a small pizza, but the waitress said “Uh, uh – get the ‘staff'”, bless her for the warning! These deep matters should be treated with respect. As hungry as I was, I couldn’t even finish the “staff”. It was good ? Well, it beat 2019’s ultra-bland stuff, crusted tomato casserole six ways through Sunday, but did I like it? I think I’ll stick with Pagliacci, or Niles Peacock, the Edmonds superlative!
And that was it – almost. In the morning, I took a cab to Union Station, braving the wrath of the seemingly ever-angry gorgon who jealously guards the entrance to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge. He’s the same vengefully furious person who’s been on duty at the Lounge every time I’ve been to Chicago, and his announcements are both long and dark and menacing. Apart from a few informative announcements, she takes great pleasure in telling us what not to do (crowd, rush, ask her questions… no, I made that last one up, but that’s the impression that she creates). “Revenge, revenge! cries the Gorgon / See the furies arise / See the serpents they raise, / How they hiss in his hair, / And the sparkles that shine in his eyes! (Adapted, with apologies, from Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto for Handel Alexander’s Day.)
Amtrak describes the Metropolitan Lounge as “a new level of luxury for Amtrak travelers seeking 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 you have to leave some headroom. trick the editor into doing what is, after all, his job.
Last two nights spent in a comfortable berth on the Empire Builder heading west. On the second day we encountered the remnants of a blizzard that had hit North Dakota a day or two before and reduced the railroads to a chaos of delayed and stalled trains. The effects of the blizzard were visible where the plow engines had worked their way through the snowdrifts in the deeper cuts, and to top off the trip, we sat cumulatively for almost seven hours waiting for various frets emerge and pass.
Once through the snow patch, we drove through the rugged terrain of Bad Land, and I was again struck by the austere beauty of North Dakota, and how – despite seemingly endless miles of what appears to be a cold, empty desert – people still manage to make a living out of the place through hard work and determination – and, I guess, love of this dramatically inhospitable land.
All the delays were certainly frustrating, but it meant it was all day when we arrived in Spokane in the morning, and the journey on the Columbia to Wenatchee and Leavenworth, then through the mountains, was a breeze. full day. This part of the journey has always been in the dark before, and the northwest views and scenery are a spectacular welcome.
Looking out the windows at the rocks and trees in our northwest corner, I could smell the woods, smell the grass on the slopes, and I 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 through the train window – I could almost smell it and feel it under my feet again, three hour runs in the hills, kayaking in the lakes , roller skiing the roads. I was never really a runner myself, but I had the incredible privilege of training with some of the best: Josh Thompson (USA), silver medalist at the 1987 Biathlon World Championships; Öjan Blomquist (Sweden), double Loppet world champion; Thomas Wassberg (Sweden) seven gold medals at the Olympic Games and world championships; Justin Wadsworth (USA) four Olympic Games and the best Olympic relay in US history; Antti Leppävuori and Marko Gracer, head coaches of Finland and Slovenia respectively, and dozens, if not hundreds, of young athletes from the North West who were also present over the years.
Please excuse the diversion – an old man looking out of the train window at his past. But that was what I had in mind as we drove through the east side of the Cascades. Glorious and rich days and memories.
Then we got to Everett and had one last wait for a freight, and finally Edmonds green splashed with rain! After 22 states, four cities, huge climatic contrasts and seven nights on a train, it’s time to rest a bit from the journey, to decide whether to wash or just burn all the dirty laundry, and return to my garden and in that most wonderful word in the language – house,
Epilogue and PS: Some random observations and reflections:
Maybe Amtrak, until it can sort out some sort of right of way, should remove all times from its schedules, because it’s either innocent guesswork or hopeless optimism, and replace them with dates. “Your train should arrive on Tuesday.” And please, please Amtrak – some variety, perhaps regional, in your meals. They have improved, but identical menus in each 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 this uplift of new horizons, different places, adventure. I know I have the bug!
The West Coast seems to regard the railroads as the longest dump in the world. All along the coast the amount of litter along the tracks is disgusting and appalling. The number of abandoned mattresses and stolen shopping carts alone would equip a large hotel and several large chain stores. I have never seen anything like it in the Orient. Why, with greater population density, does the East have so much less of that lazy recklessness?
Chicago, and to a lesser extent New York, are clean – few people sleeping on the streets, no encampments, no needles, no obvious drug dealing going on. At least that’s true in the centers – so why can’t downtown Seattle handle the same?
Thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout this journey by sharing the delays, escalators and sore feet…and all those oysters!
— By Nathaniel Brown
Nat Brown taught and coached running and cross-country skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as a wax technician and then moving to the US Cross-Country Skiing Team in 1989. He was the first American to take over the technical services of a foreign team (Slovenia) and also worked for Germany and Sweden. He has coached at 3 Olympic Games and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2 years. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which went through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an independent international ski tuning service until his retirement.