RSS Feed

Category Archives: The Wanderer – Travels

Birth of a Traveler

While I’m wasting the rest of my life in Seattle, I recently decided that it’s time for me to begin truly pursuing one of my lifelong dreams: International travel. And I decided that I’m finally in a good enough position to be able to do it.

The first step to overseas travel, of course, is figuring out just what the hell it is I’m going to be doing. But everyone I ever knew who’s been overseas tells me that’s more of a learn-as-you-do-it experience, so with that now out of the way, it’s now time to begin work on the second step: Paperwork!

Yes, paperwork. One day, a long long time ago, some government officials sat down and asked themselves how they could make money off potential travelers while also discouraging the poorer people who propped them up from leaving their homes for three days. The thing they came up with was to make everyone pay a fee for a piece of paper with your information on it. You know, something that wasn’t your birth certificate, voter registration, tax record, or horse license.

I’ve never applied for a passport before, but I did learn one important thing so far about doing it: There’s no shortcutting a way around it. If you’re an aspiring traveler who frequents travel websites, you’re probably familiar with all the online ads you see about how you can get your passport rushed to you for $100 with a next-day delivery. No fuss, no muss, a deal that looks suspiciously great. I’m a natural skeptic, so this was another point where I again turned to my globetrotting friends. They confirmed my skepticism.

Getting my hands on a proper passport means doing it the hard way. Get the paperwork, get the birth certificate, get the old New York driver’s license, and fill everything out by hand. Pay the damned fee. So here I’m finally off to the post office now to grab the forms and ask every question that I can think of.

I haven’t figured out where I want to go first yet, but it damn well better be worth it.

A Response to Seattle Met: Why I am Buying a Car

A Response to Seattle Met: Why I am Buying a Car

The Seattle Met recently wrote an article about how more and more Seattleites are forgoing the follies of the local public transit to move themselves around in their own cars. It was a whine that didn’t feel like a whine, but they weren’t totally off. Traffic here is a capillary jam. They did, however, choose to conveniently ignore a few things about the Seattle area public transit which might help them understand what’s going on.

Seattle’s transit goes through about nine agencies in some three or four counties, and the Met decided to focus strictly on the King County transit. It makes you wonder if the Met thinks Seattle exists in some sort of little capsule. What, is everyone in the general area a vampire, they can’t get into Seattle proper without invitation? Because last time I checked, there were a lot of people living in various places outside Seattle who venture in and out of the city for work. Back when I was working my night shift, I made friends with a co-worker who made a nightly commute from Olympia. That means Tacoma wasn’t out of the question.

Seattleites voted to expand their public transit system. I give them all the credit in the world for that – its been at my attention for some time that Nashville recently voted down a railway expansion for its MTA because it would bring “the wrong sorts of people.” (Read: Minorities would be able to, you know, go places.) But I’ve also made the recent decision to end years of being a holdout radical to go out and buy a car of my own. Why? Because I have an hours-long commute in both directions which the I-5 is only partially responsible for.

Okay, it’s only the second-longest commute I’ve had to get to a job since I moved to Seattle, but the longest and most difficult commute I had took me into Bellevue for my night shift. But that one can be easily hand-waved; I live in Everett, and no one would expect a half-hour drive from Everett to Bellevue no matter how they’re going about it. My current commute, however, only goes into the U-District. Not only is that a lot closer, but the way there is just a straight shot down the I-5… Yet it gets drawn out to over two hours – not much quicker than my old transport to Bellevue – because two transit systems in the area have randomly decided to emasculate themselves!

What’s more is that there is a perfectly normal bus run that makes a dash right across the part of the U-District I need to be in. The problem is that the bus line that takes me straight the way there only starts up at 9 AM. Think about that – I don’t work weekends, and the easiest, smartest bus route in the King County/Snohomish County transit plays dummy. It goes straight to Downtown Seattle, hitting a handful of the big hot stops on the way in, including the place I need, and it starts making the runs well after workers need it. You would think the problem would be solved when I leave work and make my way back to Everett, but it actually gets worse. That great route I just told you about only runs until about 2:30 PM, when it just stops… And starts back up again an hour and a half after my shift ends!

Going in and out of Seattle requires navigation of a transit labyrinth. In the morning, I have to make jumps from Everett to Ash Way before hitting the bus that gets me to 45th. You would think going back would be a run of that same route in the other direction, but here’s the thing: My transit source for the main leg of the journey, Community Transit, runs about half of their intercounty busses in the morning. The other half only runs in the evening, and none of the evening routes put me anywhere near my station n Everett. So I have to get on the first bus to Lynnwood, hop a second bus for a five-minute ride to 99, then catch the Swift to get to my cross-street. The way back is made even more of a pain by the fact that my bus options for the short stretch along 200th don’t synch up with the Swift times and there not being a stop right on 99. I get to 99 just in time to miss the Swift, and since the Swift chooses THAT time to switch to its non-business schedule, I get left with 20 minutes to kill while I get soaked.

Review that ride home: The Swift switches to its non-business schedule a half hour to an hour later, I get home at a more reasonable time. Community Transit places a stop on 99, I get home at a more reasonable time. The bus I take on 200th leaves three minutes earlier, I get home at a more reasonable time! Got all that? I didn’t even have to bring Everett Transit into it, because – despite its circulator runs being sore spots – they don’t really have anything to do with this.

The tipping point came on one of our “esteemed folks” bank holidays earlier this year. Now, on normal holidays, damn near every system running around Puget Sound switches to a Sunday schedule. But Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day are, for whatever bullshit reason, not normal holidays. And Sunday schedules usually offer all-day service. But here, we can’t have that, because it would only make sense. Therefore, the transit gets to avoid switching to a Sunday schedule and just make service cutbacks. And by “cutbacks,” I mean they just plump STOP a handful of the routes I need. The morning proved to not be much of a problem; I was able to find an alternate way through Lynnwood. The evening run, though, forced me to stand for the full 90 minutes waiting for the Soundtransit bus to finally arrive and take me straight to Everett.

That sound like fun?

Yes, I’m glad to see that while a lot of cities are cutting transit, Seattle and the areas surrounding it are willingly voting to add to it. But those Link extensions will be years in the making, the Sounder is the most useless train on the planet, and the Swift is only working on one extra route at the moment. In the meantime, I can go crazy or get a set of wheels so I can roll out of bed at a reasonable hour.

It’s the Little Things: Short Takes on My First Year in the Pacific Northwest

It’s the Little Things: Short Takes on My First Year in the Pacific Northwest

I moved out to the pacific northwest a little over a year ago, and here are the things that really struck me about it:

I’ve never worn hoodies so often in my life. They’re the most useful clothes you can possess here. They run counter to the way I usually try to dress these days, but holy shit are they comfortable.

A lot of restaurants have three garbage disposals: Trash, recycling, and compost. I’m still not quite sure how to tell the difference between them.

The pizza places on every corner they had back east have been replaced by Asian food on every corner.

I do miss the autumn foliage of New York, but evergreen forests offer the corollary of not looking dead for the eight months of the year when there aren’t any leaves.

Coffee kiosks are the greatest things since Betty White.

Starbucks is a local business now. It’s also a life saver, even though the people who live here would never admit that out loud.

Salmon Chowder seems to have a lot in common with New England Clam Chowder.

The weather is awesome when it’s not raining. Even on cool days, you can get away with just bundling up in one of those aforementioned hoodies and a good long-sleeve shirt.

Speaking of the rain, I don’t know who said that this place receives less rain annually than New York, but I’m willing to bet it was someone who worked for the tourism department.

Airplanes seem to be nearly a part of the local culture. Seems every time I go out, I see a Cessna or some other four-person prop job flying around or performing jumps.

You know you live in Seattle when one in every three people you know works for Boeing.

For a place where the sky spends so much time coming into physical contact with your head, I don’t see very many people carrying umbrellas.

Seattle really is a sports city. Everyone outside thinks the place has nothing but fair-weather fans, but the fans know everything about football and I’ve met a lot of diehard hockey followers.

Everyone talks about the rain. No one mentions the wind, and that’s the real weather hazard here.

Seattle has the greatest selection of radio stations I’ve ever heard in my life.

I’ve never heard so much grunge in one place. It’s like the dominance of blues in Chicago. Every day, I can count on hearing old cuts from Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam, and old deep cuts from Nirvana. And by that I don’t mean the deluxe version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I mean the deeps and unknowns. (“I’m on a plain… I can’t complain…”)

I also think its weird how the two most prominent and influential musicians associated with Seattle – Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain – both played left-handed guitar. I don’t mean they were southpaws who happened to play guitar; I mean they played guitar using the lefty grip. That’s rare, because learning to play left-handed guitar is such a pain in the ass that most southpaws say fuck it and learn to do it right-handed.

Why the funny noises coming for the walk signs on street lights?

I’m amused that the cable car system isn’t a real cable car system.

Yes, there’s a commuter train. It’s called the Sounder, and it’s damn near useless unless you’re trying to get to The Clink.

Also yes, this is a microbrewer’s paradise. If you go to a bar and you don’t know what they offer, you can say pretty much any random combination of words and be given a beer.

(Year-Late) Dispatches From The Rose City

(Year-Late) Dispatches From The Rose City

Where I took my first breath of the pacific northwest’s crisp air is more a point of contention than one would realize. It has a lot to do with the idea of just where the Rocky Mountains end and the pacific northwest begins. Is it the divide between Idaho and Montana, which would place the popular university city of Boise in Cascadia? Or is it the cultural divide at the Cascade Mountains that splits the western hipsterville from ‘Murica 30 miles out? Some people would say that my first exposure to the elements in the great northwest came in a tired daze, when I awoke in the early AM hours in Spokane and stumbled off my train to stretch while it was making a water stop and splitting in half to take travelers to respective destinations in Oregon and Washington. Or perhaps it was a stop in Pasco, Washington, as the Amtrak crept along the bottom of the Columbia Gorge when I stepped off into the thickest mist and most humid air I’ve ever felt, which soaked my skin and clothes in a pleasant layer of dew. The one part of my journey that comes without argument is that it ended on an early Monday morning in Portland, where I left the Amtrak and took my greeting steps into a part of the country which, until that moment, had never existed as anything but a rumor.

My final stop before my excursion into Oregon was, of course, Chicago. My home for five years of my life was also the only real home I had ever come to know; during my years there, I finally learned to stop hiding. Buffalo was merely a city I lived in for a long time. Although my nativity there gave me access that tourists and n00bs wouldn’t find without an effort, my radical ways of thinking forced Buffalo into defensive mode. As a result, the city was never able to get its arms around me, so my relationship with The Nickel City – always strained a little bit – got outright rocky after the welcome my community in Chicago gave me. Chicago was my shining beacon on a hill. It was there that my true potential started to surface. Chicago became the bar by which I judged every place I’ve been since, and nowhere compared. So it was on this journey that I promised to stop making comparisons of any other city to it.

That being said, Portland made it a hell of a contest. My placements of Portland and Chicago on my list of favorite cities are first and second, and which goes where depends on my mood. I only developed two problems with Portland: One was that crossing the Willamette River was a pain in the ass. The other was the lack of PTA programs where I could finish the line of education I’m pursuing. The first one I was willing to put up with. The second one was more of an issue, which disappointed me because had there been the educational opportunity I needed, I would have cast my anchor right there.

The train station in Portland was set close to the cute, quaint little village part that every city on the west coast seems to have. The first thing I did was hop into a cab and have it take me to my hostel on Hawthorne. Giving the driver my money after the ride, I was delighted to be handed a rare two-dollar bill as part of my change. I was so sure it was a joke that I went to two different stores afterward to ask if it was real, and was assured everywhere that yes, it was legit currency.

Portland was a city of many surprises. It was proof that somewhere, a city planner cracked my skull open and pulled out the “ideal city” folder, then got to work. My hostel was run on rainwater, there were two iconic donut shops and one very large used bookstore, I didn’t pay any sales taxes, there were locally-owned businesses everywhere, there were microbreweries everywhere, cyclists glided fearlessly in small mobs, the street layout made perfect sense, the transit system worked, and it was easy to find good coffee cafes where I could sit down and watch the world go by. In the last couple of years, I’ve fallen in love with the TV show Portlandia. I was aware of Portland’s reputation as an outpost for the quirky and weird. I knew the cliches: Keep Portland weird. Portland, where young people go to retire. Portland, where the dream of the 90’s is alive. But that was TV, so I tried to keep my expectations reigned in. When I got to Portland, though, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein were making less of an affectionate parody and more of a travel documentary. Anyone who’s been to Portland can’t look at me and tell me they would be surprised if a 3D printer just popped up along the Willamette River. And that there wouldn’t be people in Portland trying to build their houses one plastic brick at a time using it!

The freaks and vagrants are magnetized to Portland, and it was easy to see why. As long as you were a decent person, anything you believed or did would be met with a quick shrug and a “that’s cool, man.” I can’t help but believe Portland exists in its own bubble, but I despise that description because it implies the dominance of a narrow set of beliefs that never got penetrated by the larger world. (And we all know what city I have in mind when I say that.) Portland wants the riffraff and will reject any corporation that tries to drop in with the sales pitch of making the city more “normal” or “family-oriented.” They’ll ignore Walmart, but they’ll be happy to accept Wall Marte as long as the profits all circulated in their own city. They hate Domino’s, but if someone thought to set up a Donny Moe’s, that’s okay as long as the pizza is edible. Even my hostel bunkmates were on the far side, even by the standards of hostel people. Politicking punks were typical hosteler fare there. One night, a very friendly surfer-like kid asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle. I took him up on the offer, of course. Turns out that riding a unicycle isn’t quite as hard as it looks once you get a sense of balance for it. And it’s not as dangerous, either; if you fall over, your feet will almost automatically be the first parts of your body to hit the ground, and from there it’s easy to right yourself. The kid who was giving me my lesson said there was nothing to worry about. He had taught many people to ride unicycles, and only one of them had gotten hurt. The one who got hurt also happened to be drunk off his ass.

I spent my time in Portland trying to hit up good coffee and microbrew places suggested by a friend who lived in the area, but I also discovered a few spots of my own. I liked Blue Star Donuts, which makes French-style brioche donuts. They took 18 hours to make and were done every day by hand, and turned into unique flavors like Blueberry Bourbon Basil. I also came to understand the fierce rivalry between Blue Star Donuts and the more established and prevalent Voodoo Donuts. As I read and drank my way through the city, I kept getting thrown off by the lack of a sales tax. Oregon is one of five states that doesn’t have a sales tax, and it’s probably the best-known one. Like every other American, I learned early on to hate the sales tax with a passion because it’s a hidden cost. It’s being intentionally dishonest about the price a place will have on a product in order to try to squeeze out a little extra money. It was tempting to end all my monetary transactions with the question, “Are you SURE?!” and that did slip out of my mouth a few times.

I don’t go out of my way to visit kitschy attractions when I travel. I travel to see what’s interesting and unique about places and interact with the people who live there. But Portland had Mill Ends Park, a public park space consisting of a single evergreen tree and 452 square inches of space. No, “inches” is not a typo. The park is a single circle, two feet in diameter, sitting on SW Naito Parkway. It’s the smallest public park in the world, and a part of the best park system in America. But that was the only must-see thing on my Portland List. Everything else, I just went out and happened to stumble into. The Library, the Courthouse, Portland State University, Providence Park, and everywhere I found beer and coffee was a place I happened to walk into. Not that I’m complaining, because the lack of corporatization made every corner in the city look unique. Between that and the easy layout of the city, Portland is a place where it’s difficult to get lost. On the off chance you do manage to get lost, the people there are the types who are friendly enough to give you directions.

It was halfway through the week when I got the chance to see a friend I hadn’t seen in years. I let her know where my dates for being in Portland were set in stone, and she took pains to throw a wedge into an obviously busy schedule in order to see me and catch up. She was also a big help in letting me know what was worth trying, coming through a series of Facebook messages she sent me while I was on my way into the city. Apparently, Portland had stayed fluid even during the years since she moved there. We went to one of the local breweries, and even in there changes were always happening. She explained that the last time she went to that particular brewery, they didn’t serve food, and the place had been smaller at the time.

In Portland, I found something I didn’t think existed: A city that was tailor-made to my own specific tastes. Unfortunately, a possible move there may still be a few years off. I have a specific educational goal to finish pursuing which Portland didn’t offer. Maybe one day, though… In the meantime, I think I’ve found my new favorite vacation spot. You can keep your corporatized McDisney family tourist shit. I’ll go to Portland.

Trains, Planes, but No Automobiles: The Ultimate Travel!

Trains, Planes, but No Automobiles: The Ultimate Travel!

I’ve gotten a respectable distance through the United States. I’ve been from the extreme north to the extreme south, extreme east to extreme west. And here’s a kicker which people these days may not believe: My journeys to the extremes all took place on land. There were some buses and cars involved, but I’ve mostly become known for my primary reliance on a form of old-fashioned travel which is so forgotten that a lot of people don’t even realize it’s still around: Train. It was the Amtrak that opened up the vast expanses of America for me and allowed me to view and experience firsthand the sights we sing about in all our popular National Anthems.

This didn’t happen because I had anything against air travel, per se. Except my fear of heights. But I always knew that sooner or later, I was going to have to get over that. And when my sister got married, I found myself nestled on an Alaska Airlines flight to California asking “Is this really so much better than the train?” So let’s do this! Trains vs. airplanes. One day, I’ll learn.

Efficiency
The point of both trains and planes is to get passengers from one point to another. Now, everyone knows the fastest way between two points is a straight line, and that how airlines operate: They fly from point A to point B in the straightest line they possibly can. Furthermore, they can frequently make those flights in a matter of hours with minimal interference. Trains are land-based, and can only travel on sets of parallel rails, which means that if things are crowded, they can’t simply turn onto the next rail because it’s moving faster. Trains also move slower than airplanes – yes, they’re faster than cars, but they still take a matter of days to make trips airplanes cover in hours. Of course, you’re allowed to get off a train to stretch when it stops.
Winner
Airplanes. There’s virtually no way trains are superior to airplanes in pure efficiency. I saw very few delays in the airports that I was in, while trains will frequently get held up for the slightest of reasons: They can’t keep the tracks clear, there’s a shift change, the engineer channel-surfed into a rerun of Battlestar Galactica that he really liked. Furthermore, the primary train system in the United States – Amtrak – is a government-run passenger train which is forced to run on privately-owned freight tracks. If you can’t guess what gets the priority on the freight lines, you’re probably not an American. My first-ever train journey was delayed three times because of this.

Service
Good service can make a long ride a little bit more pleasant, and both trains and airplanes have certain kinds of service. Trains have their conductors, who walk from car to car taking tickets, writing down ticket information, and giving passengers notice of what stops are coming up next. Trains also have service exclusive to the dining and lounge cars – two different things – and they all excel at their jobs. All the dining car service I ever experienced was faster than The Flash; after placing my order, I had my hot food placed down within a few minutes. The lounges don’t have roving service, but the server standing behind the snack counter has always been very fast. Instead of a handful of different kinds of servants handling designated roles, airplanes make do with their flight attendants. The flight attendants are in the business of doing a little bit of everything, from handing out little trinkets to serving drinks and snacks as well as being a line of first aides who present safety procedures. It’s the flight attendant who greets you as you board and cheerfully sends you off after the flight. In between, the flight attendants perform all kinds of services, from giving out complimentary snacks to taking food orders to cleaning up your garbage. And they all do it with a politeness which is almost superhuman.
Winner
Much as I like the service on the train, the flight attendants take this one because they’re asked to do a more impressive number of tasks in a much smaller space. Flight attendants are the be-all-and-end-all on an airplane. Not only that, but they also bring the service to the passengers rather than standing in one place so the passengers have to get up and approach them. Also, I frequently found myself looking to them for how calm they are in the face of everything a flight can go through. After all, they make their living on the airplane, so they’ve seen it all.

Terminals
If you have to wait, you should at least be comfortable while waiting, right? And trains have stations that resemble palaces in certain locations. The train station in Albany is a modern glass and steel structure with all the amenities of a western skyscraper. Grand Central Station in New York City and Union Station in Chicago offer giant underground networks filled with restaurants and kiosks, comfortable waiting rooms, and even vehicles which span for several blocks and protect travelers from the elements. Unfortunately, those fortresses are rare, and if you’re in some backwoods outpost like Rugby, North Dakota, or Elyria, Ohio, your train station is more likely to resemble a quickly-assembled tool shed. Its amenities will include virtually no security, bathrooms which offer no reason to trust them, and a few vending machines. And there are cities with the aforementioned palace stations that don’t even have their palace stations anymore: Buffalo and St. Louis both ran train stations which were art deco masterpieces before they were left to decay. Both have been rescued, but Buffalo is struggling to find a new purpose for its old station while the St. Louis station is nothing more than an odd gathering of random food outlets and small outlet stores. Airplanes park at airports, which take up enormous tracts of land and provide an aesthetic beauty which is less than underwhelming. Douglas Adams once wrote that it’s no coincidence that in no language exists the phrase “as pretty as an airport,” and he was dead on. Airports are built more for functionality, and that makes up for their ugliness. Most airports offer a bevy of places to eat and buy newspapers and souvenirs. More importantly, an airport can hold several different flights going to many different places at the same time, while the average train station will be a single train stop for five minutes while some people get on and others get off, which is why there are so few trains that go in and out of any given city per day.
Winner
Airplanes. The good train stations are too few and far between, and they’re actually becoming less common with fewer people taking long-distance train rides. In any case, even the largest train stations can hold a handful of trains at once. Airports have a lot of terminals and are built to get a lot of people to their flights. Airplanes aren’t as large as trains either, so airports are built to be convenient for a bunch of different airplanes to dock at the same time.

Price
Prices on both the train and airplane tend to shift according to how many people are traveling. I’ve seen prices for both run close to $300 for round trips. The difference is that for the train, a price like that could take you across the country while an airplane ticket with that price tag could take you a couple of states. Oh, and there are these other differences too: After you pay the ticket price for the train, that’s the end of all monetary transactions unless you decide to buy the food on the train. Otherwise, you show up at the station, collect your ticket, get on the train, get off the train, and that’s that. With airplanes, the ticket prices tend to waver a lot more on a day by day basis. Then you go to the airport, and pay to have the pass printed, and to have your luggage checked, and to get most of the food. Although I did notice that the airplane food you have to pay for is cheaper than the train food.
Winner
Train. Maybe you could make an argument that the airplane offers better advantages for the higher prices, but given unlimited time and money, do you think that’s going to matter? Cheaper is going to be better in most cases, and the train is one of them.

Sightseeing
There’s a reason trains and airplanes have windows: It’s so the people traveling can get some sweet views of the outside scenery. The great thing about airplane windows is that there are covers which easily slide over them if you think too much sun is getting let in. Trains have curtains, but they’re a pain in the ass to move. Airplanes offer some incredible views which you’ll never find anywhere else – if you overcome the height, you’ll get to see entire coastlines, whole mountains from above, and big cities which you can cover with your hand. It offers a chance to see things in an entirely new way. The view from the train is dramatically different. It offers more of a pioneer point of view as it takes travelers, ground-level, over expanses of land which a lot of people will never get to access in their cars. Trains tracks are built in a way which allows them to cover any kind of weird stretch of terrain, no matter how unlikely. The kinds of things they’ve done with steel rails are still things no one has really attempted to do with asphalt, because a train needs only a narrow confine to move around, and that leads to incredible sights as travelers are taken across swamps, along canyon bottoms, and even through cities.
Winner
Trains. While an airplane can give travelers a unique view from above, it offers its best upon takeoff and landing. At some point, the level is just about perfect, and that can be before the airplane levels out. Also, train travelers don’t have to try to look through cloud cover the way airplane travelers do. There’s a lot more to see, and you can easily view the little details which lend color and artistry to the landscape. But what really takes points away from the airplane here is that the best views of the scenery are only available to the people next to the windows. This isn’t a problem on trains, where windows are very large and you can head to the lounge for a view of everything the surrounding scenery has to offer.

Food
Trains serve both regular meals and snacks, but they use two different cars to do so. The lounge car offers several snacking staples – a little alcohol, pop, and some small, cheap, handheld sweets. They also offer more lunch-like treats like burgers and hot dogs, but those are wrapped up and thawed in the microwave. In my book, that makes them no good, since parts of them stay frozen anyway. The food in the dining car is actually pretty good, and served nice and hot. And in all honesty, Amtrak serves one of the better cups available anywhere. Airplanes serve complimentary snacks and drinks – at least some of them do. They also have full meals available, but the trouble with this category is that I haven’t eaten a full airplane meal. I’ve heard the food in first class – which I’ve never flown in – is much better than the food in whatever non-first class is called, but having never eaten either, I don’t think it would be fair for me to judge the nice train food against a couple of bags of mini-pretzels.
Winner
Incomplete. Ask me again after I’ve made a longer-distance flight. Actually, I’m just including this for completion’s sake – I tend not to order full meals during lengthy travels. Even on the main leg of my journey to the west, I subsided mostly on a loaf of bread from Whole Foods and Amtrak’s coffee.

Comfort
The most hated and disrespected form of long-distance travel in the country is probably the bus. There’s a reason for that: Buses are cramped, loud, slow, and have very little space to move around. Imagine that same atmosphere in the sky. Okay, that’s not fair to airplanes – airlines do everything they can to make the flight more pleasant than any bus ride will ever be. They offer refreshments, and the flight attendants are always around in case you need anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that airplanes have to cram a lot of people into a small space, and there’s going to be a little bit of discomfort on a few levels like that. The seats tend to be on the smaller side, it’s difficult to walk out of your row, and having your carry-on bag by your feet can make you feel a little cramped. Trains, well, the dining cars don’t have a whole lot of space available, so you may sometimes be asked to share a table with someone you’ve never seen before. And like on airplanes, there’s a risk of slamming your head against the overhead compartment. Airplanes seat people three to a row, unless hey paid for a first class ticket, in which case it’s a roomier two to a row. Trains offer two to a row in coach, with large seats and sizable spaces to get in and out – which train travelers use to move around in the car quite often. The aisles on a train are significantly larger, and two people can easily get around each other. And although trains don’t call it that, they do offer a first-class spot for people willing to pony up the cash; it’s called the sleeper car.
Winner
Trains. There isn’t a spot I can think of where airplanes are more comfortable than trains. Even the first class goodies on airplanes don’t come off as any more comfortable than the average coach seat on a train. Furthermore, the room trains have is important on long trips, where passengers will want to get up and stretch their legs a few times. Even if a passenger feels crowded in a seat, they can easily get up and spend a few hours in the lounge car reading, using the internet, or watching the world go by. Airplane passengers also have more engine noise and turbulence to deal with, while the train is almost silent and makes little more than gentle rocking motions.

I don’t intentionally write these things to be ties, you know. I try to be as honest and objective as possible, even if my preference isn’t what comes out on top. (That was the case in my Cleveland vs. Buffalo sports curses post.) But, for a third time, I’m not able to place one above the other. Airplanes and trains both have their merits.

Recharged

This blog is only a small amount of what I choose to write about my personal thoughts and ideas. The real fireworks occur in the more traditional longhand medium, which is a habit I had dabbled with in the past but only really picked up last year after a particularly egregious oversight by people I know. It proved to be a wonderful release until… Well, the reservoir wasn’t even close to dry, but it was starting to crumble under the dead weight of everything: My rapidly fading emotions, my draining will to keep writing, my general loneliness, boredom, and frustrations, and my suicidal contemplation being stronger than ever before. I randomly quit journaling, and when I finally decided to take it up again, it was more with the forced willingness of a blocked creator on a deadline than through any wont on my part. It reflected in my suddenly bare writing style.

It would take a hell of a spark to get me going again. I felt parts of it begin to light up as I visited Friendship Presbyterian Church to see… Well, friends in Chicago during my layover, and that night while watching the entire lunar eclipse from parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. And I felt it as my bus glided through the vast expanse of the Nashville city limits and along the front of the skyline in the early hours of the morning.

Then came my first night in Nashville, with Christi meeting me on the West End after I had spent a fairly invigorating day wandering around the city.

“Did you get to the waterfront?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t make it down that far,” I said.

And so with that, Christi decided she had to show off the waterfront, 10 PM time and the fact that I was still fatigued from three or four different Greyhound rides be damned. Christi told me about the pedestrian walkway that crossed the Cumberland River, but confessed that she didn’t know where it began. We ended up parked a brisk ten-minute walk from it, with Christi saying we would simplify our activities because it was so late: Walk to the bridge, see if we could find the entrance, and return to the car. But it had been a good long time since the last time we had seen each other, and so at the start of our walk, everything that happened over the past years tumbled out. Christi is a spectacular ranter, and before the car was parked, her mouth was flying at such a high level that it was discovered and renamed by the Chinese space program. That got me going, and as we shared our dark thoughts on taboo subjects with each other, our quick 20-minute walk to find the trail to the pedestrian bridge morphed into a 120-minute walk across the bridge and a lap around the football stadium. My feet were throbbing by the time we got back to the car, but that didn’t matter to me.

Something about that moment had lit me right back up. One of the many reasons that Christi and I are friends is because Christi is about the most unshockable person I’ve ever known. She’s willing to take interest in and run with ideas that even the most open-minded people won’t let themselves so much as even think, and that frees me up to speak and act without the burdens of any of those ridiculous masks we force ourselves into when we need to function around even small crowds. The very idea of normality is something which drives us both into convulsions, especially if we’ve had to go past our limits pretending to be that way.

That was just the beginning. One of odd aspects of this mental recharge was that a lot of it also happened while I did the typical Western New York NHL playoffs routine: Outside on the front porch, screen door shut, drinking all the beer within reach while prattling on about the hockey playoff game blaring audibly in the background. Except, this being Tennessee and no one watches hockey in Tennessee, we replaced the hockey game with whatever random offering of music happened to be laying around in the CD case. We picked the music pretty much in round robin fashion, and I didn’t pass up a chance to listen to August and Everything After for the first time since, well, possibly ever.

After a couple of days, I finally felt that familiar urge to write again. When I did, my journal entries looked like they had the creativity and congealed energy and focus of my original journal entries. Words started coming easier, and instead of writing down handfuls of near-non-sentences about the daily sequence, I started writing down the same thoughts and feelings that I believed needed to be dug up by the local archeologist 500 years after I’ve been dead. I’m starting to wonder if I should take the time and effort to try to trick the archeologist who digs me up at that point into thinking I was some sort of cloned dinosaur, or maybe one of the world’s great superdictators.

Of course, the practical downside of everything is that I haven’t been able to just sit down and machine-gun blog entries the way I want to. That’s just the sort of shit that can happen when your computer craps out on you. (And let there be no mistake about it – it’s goddamn junk these days. It’s an iMac, but it’s an iMac from 2008, and an Apple from 2008 is practically ash by this point.) Hell, I wasn’t able to blog at all in Nashville. So now I have to sort through all of my newly-collected memories and decide how to consolidate them, or decide which ones I think are odd enough to jump from my journal page to whatever computer screen I happen to be staring at. No matter what happens, though, one thing about my writing will always be the same: I’m still at my very best whenever I take the Hemingway approach to my work.

The Nashville Sound

The Nashville Sound

Johnny Cash became a superstar in Nashville. He’s technically considered a country singer, which means music aficionados are likely to file him under the “YEE-HAW!!!” compartments of their brains right along with John Wayne’s dead brand of American patriotism and Terry Bradshaw. Cash, though, had a powerful flair for lyrics. He spoke to the darkest corners of the soul; the areas we’re forced to deny the existence of whenever we put on our brave faces because social protocol demands we suck it up and move on. He made a career of expressing in music and lyric form the ways we’ve all felt at our loneliest and most helpless, and in doing so he turned into a transcendent singer whose work was felt by everyone, whether or not they hated country music.

Nashville itself, of course, has a long and storied history in music. Elvis Presley is such a popular figure there that his favorite sandwich can be bought at Johnny Cash’s museum. It’s even nicknamed The Music City! With a nick and a reputation like that, you would expect an explosive variety of music to be available on the local radio stations, with a load of country stations leading the charge. But when I turned on my small shortwave radio in my first morning in Nashville and started channel surfing, it was very surprising and a little disturbing to find station after station of those great dregs of music: Christian music. Constant clicking of that whacked-out, balls-to-the-wall, fire and brimstone variety of preaching. God is good; heaven will be awesome; you’re all going to hell; the end times are here and the atheists are all going to have the planet to themselves after we all get raptured.

No wonder everyone makes fun of country music. There are so many Christian radio stations in Nashville that some bigshot travel writer probably listened to all the Christian stations, mistook the music for country, and launched a satirical stereotype worthy of Mencken or Twain. Staying as a guest in the home of my good friend Christi, the first thing I asked her that morning – besides “How the hell does this coffee machine work?” – was about whether or not there were any radio stations in Nashville that weren’t screaming about the holy light and the greatness of Jay-zuz! in orgasmic overtones. She told me that she noticed that too, and that a lot of those Christian stations were going to either tread on eggshells or scare the fear of the Christian God into you.

Mindboggling is the word for this. To listen to radio in Nashville is to conclude that residents are either all crackers or religious fanatics and that no one in the city could possibly be a fan of jazz, blues, hip hop, or classic rock. The Law of Averages alone means the demographics of Nashville probably include people who like all those things. And don’t misread me here – they’ll definitely include people who love Christian music and country music too, but probably not 12 goddamned stations of it.

It’s weird to think there are 12 different demographics of people who would listen to Christian music at all. We like to toss things into broadly generalized categories and lament about how they’re all the same. This sentiment, however, doesn’t actually hold true. All those similar products are specifically made to appeal to that general audience in a different way. But, little obedient Christian as I once was, I really have never detected a difference in Christian-based mass media. All of the Christian music I’ve heard boils down to the same watered-down message: God loves you so much that he killed his own kid in order to undo a nefarious plan enacted by his arch-foe centuries in the past. They all emphasize the same Bible stories and the fact that this God character loves us and wants us to be happy without the use of beer. It’s a very straightforward message, always told in an equally straightforward manner. So how are 12 Christian music stations able to divvy up a fanbase in a city as large and diverse as Nashville and still be in business? Especially when they have to compete against all the real country music stations?

This is just… Odd. I had heard all the stories about what things were like in the South, along the Bible Belt, of course. Hell, this isn’t even my first time traveling through the South. I had traveled to St. Louis – and I am, in fact, in St. Louis again, writing this post from the Illinois side – and been to the very tip of the South, New Orleans, on the Gulf Coast. But there are people who could build a case against me ever visiting the South at all with a travel itinerary that looks like that – St. Louis is only arguably a Southern city, and New Orleans is an odd little hotbed of hedonism which is also the headquarters of New France and a dominantly Catholic city in Southern Baptist Jesusland. While Nashville fits all possible descriptions of a large city, it also fits all possible descriptions of being a Southern city. Right down to a glorification of Nathan Bedford Forest, the Confederate General who also just happened to be the founder of the Ku Klux Klan once the Civil War was over. And yes, that oh-so-slight little blotch on Forest’s resume is under gloss so thick that it gets buried altogether.

So there I was, having rejected Christianity in nearly as complete a way as can be done, being told by weird voices in my radio that I can go to hell. And there I also was, thinking the same thing about that as I’ve now been thinking for the last ten years. I don’t know whether to laugh at the absurdity of this whole situation or cry about being in it. I don’t know if I should be bemused or disturbed. I can, however, say this: Nashville was otherwise such a fun place to be that it wasn’t able to get into my head.