For anyone travelling between Toronto and New York, I whole-heartedly endorse Greyhound’s new Neon Express service. I have to admit I barely even noticed the ‘express’ modifier, since that term rarely seems to apply to inter-city buses. But it’s actually express – there is a single rest stop, the mandatory customs stop, and nothing else. As a result, the ride felt lightning-quick – under 9 hours. Go to sleep once Homeland Security is done with your backpack, wake up in the Holland Tunnel.

This makes bus travel on the TO-NY route quite time-competitive, compared with flying (which I estimate at 6 hours, with all the necessary airport time) and the train (which comes in at a sluggish 14 hours, and offers no overnight service). Other benefits include wifi (which is probably more useful for people who don’t get motion sickness after two minutes of Google Reader) and movies.

Most importantly, though, Neon Express offers variable ticket pricing – if you book early, it’s ridiculously cheap. There is the much-advertised $1 fare per bus, which must get snapped up quite early, but 2 weeks out I got a round-trip ticket for $90 USD (contrast that with Greyhound’s normal $200 r/t fare). Even the 2-day advance ticket is $120, which is still the cheapest way to make the trip outside of hitchhiking/car-sharing.

So what made Greyhound start this service? The appearance of Megabus, the European discount bus line, in North America (in terms of my endorsement, I equally recommend Megabus – my deciding factor was merely which line had cheaper tickets for my particular date, so one should comparison shop).

I had always been curious about Greyhound’s profitability – while they enjoy a near-monopoly, this seems to be achieved partly through running service to a lot of money-losing areas. Well, the answer must be that Greyhound is very profitable, since they can afford to mimick their competitors’ deals perfectly. Megabus sails to America and starts running TO-NY service with variable pricing, express service, wifi and $1 fares. Suddenly, Greyhound rolls out the same service. Clearly, there is room for North American bus fares to come down. (My other example: I discovered that while a standard Toronto-Guelph fare is $40, a same-day fare is $22 – the exact amount charged by GO Transit for their bus service, popular with commuters, but not occasional travellers).

Oil prices are at record levels, and everyone is anticipating the same record highs in transportation costs – but I think the Megabus story tells us to be optimistic. As the demand for the fuel efficient transport increases, these new economies of scale may just as well bring prices down as push them up.


Doors Open 2008


This event was a great way to experience a new city. Last weekend, more than 120 different buildings opened their doors to the public. Cycling map in hand, I headed out to see the insides of Toronto’s greatest buildings.

View from Canada Life building

View from the top of the Canada Life building.

Courtroom #2

An Ontario Court of Appeal courtroom.

City Hall observation deck

The observation deck at the top of City Hall.

MEC green roof 2

Mountain Equipment Co-op’s green roof.

John St. Roundhouse

John St. Roundhouse, the site of the future National Railroad Museum.

Harvey Shops

TTC Harvey Shops.

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Start Finish Mode Distance (km) Cost ($)
Edmonton Vancouver Train 1153 209
Vancouver Seattle Bus 230 43
Seattle Portland Train 279 36
Portland Salem Bus 74 11
Salem Sacramento Train 718 59
Sacramento Richmond Train 50 19
Emeryville Merced Train 197 29
Merced Yosemite Bus 103 24
Yosemite Merced Bus 103 24
Merced Bakersfield Train 265 32
Bakerville Los Angeles Bus 179 21
Los Angeles San Diego Train 193 29
San Diego Los Angeles Train 193 29
Los Angeles Santa Barbara Train 153 21
Santa Barbara San Luis Obispo Train 171 25
San Luis Obispo Emeryville Bus 368 34
Emeryville Salt Lake City Train 1169 68
Salt Lake City Denver Train 859 82
Denver Chicago Train 1618 119
Chicago Buffalo Train 863 72
Buffalo Toronto Train 158 37
Toronto Ottawa Train 453 90
Total Distance 9549
Dollars/km 0.063776312
Total carbon emissions (kg) 467.901
Total value of rail pass 1113
Money “saved” 504

Hopefully this will be useful to anyone researching the North American Rail Pass (which I got for $609 Canadian). Obviously, I got good value out of it — and even seeing all those cities, the trip emitted less than half the carbon of a flight. However, if I had a purchased this pass in high season, as a non-youth, for $999, I would have only been “saving” $114. With that, it’s not so clear it’s worth limiting myself to 30 days, and losing the ability to travel by cheaper modes (such as Greyhound or commuter trains in SF and LA) at some points in the trip.

Interestingly, Amtrak trips seem a lot cheaper than VIA trips of comparable distances; I would expected the Canadian government to be better at a subsidizing a money-losing public corporation than the Americans, but apparently not. Based on that, I would say that the Canada-only pass ($450) is actually much better value, if all you care about is cheaply getting what would normally be overpriced.


-distances are based on highway distances between cities; Google Maps doesn’t calculate rail trips (yet)

-prices are pulled from hypothetical bookings on the Amtrak and VIA sites; these prices do vary

-emissions are based on a rate of 49g/km, which is mentioned as a liberal estimate here

-US and Canadian dollars are treated as interchangeable

At this point in the trip, tourist time was over and I was simply in store for the unpleasant amount of travel time required to get home – thus the lack of photos and witty urban analysis.

I caught the overnight Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to Buffalo, where I had a three-hour stopover waiting for the Toronto-bound The Maple Leaf. You might think that three hours in Buffalo doesn’t sound like a lot of fun – but then you didn’t even know that I was talking about the Buffalo-Depew station, a isolated little stop designed for easy access to the airport, but also the overlapping stop between these two trains. While I wasn’t pleased with the prospect of killing time in this concrete box, if there’s one thing I was skilled at by this point in the trip, it was the killing of time.

Buffalo-Depew station

Finally The Maple Leaf arrived and I boarded, eager to heading back to the motherland – but not before what felt like hours of customs inspectors. Eventually, we got to Toronto, where I met up with a tree planting friend and we managed to catch up a bit before heading to sleep.

On my final rail travel day I got up early to catch 6:55am train to Ottawa. A snowstorm was raging in Toronto, and we rode with it eastward. While apparently things were quite calm that morning in Ottawa, as I left the train station the city was slowly descending into blizzard and chaos.

I had originally planned to catch a ride to Pembroke on that afternoon, but it was clear that wasn’t happening. Instead I waited for my sister’s delayed bus (more time easily killed), had dinner in Little Italy and stayed the night in Ottawa.

The next morning, after a two-hour drive on a freshly plowed highway: home. 30 days, done and done.

After the overnight bus from SLO to Emeryville (just outside of San Francisco), I was ready to start the trek east. Of the four possible cross-country trains, I had selected the California Zephr, since it offered the cities I was most interested in seeing, and terminated in Chicago, from where it would be easy to get to Ontario. The first leg, to Salt Lake City, afforded some great scenery in the Californian mountains and through Nevada. In some nice added value for a geek like me, volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum read out historical trivia at relevant stops. That night, somewhere in Nevada there was a fantastic moment where we stopped and had some kind of power failure, left to look from the dining car out into the complete darkness of the desert.

View from capitol steps

Salt Lake City was an exact 24-hour stop, arriving and departing at 4am. It was a day full of the expected: views of the mountains, a tour of Mormon headquarters (including some searching in their immense genealogy database), and a stop at the state legislature. Mostly, Utah made me really want to return with a car or bike and check out the huge number of national parks in its southern half, to explore the unique landscape.

Despite the good luck of arriving during Sundance, every film I was interested in seeing was sold out; I consoled myself by catching a flick at the megaplex and feeling excessively lame. I had failed to finalize plans with a couchsurfing contact, and just ended up sleeping in the train station — a painful experience, given its small size and uncomfortable furniture, but apparently SLC is building a new one for future travellers.

Another day on the train brought me to Denver, a city which I did not do justice to. The bought of consecutive nights of partial sleeps in awkward places caught up with me; I spent about half my day throwing up in the apartment of my gracious couchsurfing host and the other half wandering around downtown. I enjoyed its pedestrian mall, bookstores, and what I saw in my brief, obligatory look at the state legislature — beyond that, all I can say is it’s a city I’d like to see again. I was scheduled to leave at 8pm; luckily I checked the Amtrak website and knew well in advance that the Zephr was running 6 hours late.

By now, even a train-lover like me was getting sick of the train, and I spent as much time sleeping as I could. Thanks to the delay, I arrived in Chicago after midnight, and decided that it was too late to wake up my planned couchsurfing host, so I instead planned to walk the mile to a hostel. As soon as I stepped outside of the train station, the wind hit me, and it seemed like tourists everywhere where being tossed by the wind. Feeling the chill cut through my long johns, I begrudgingly hailed a cab who took me to hostel for an embarrassingly cheap fare.

Like Denver, my schedule and temperament didn’t afford nearly enough to Chicago. It had a lot to offer, and completely outperformed my expectations. I managed to fill my little time there catching the El-train to the suburb of Oak Park, where I saw Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace and took a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house. After that, I was back downtown for a two hour walking tour of modern architecture put on by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It was fantastic, totally accessible to an architecture newbie, and with frequent indoor stops to warm up from the cold.

That evening I waited in the beautiful Union Station for my overnight train to Buffalo, the Lake Shore Limited — despite Richard Florida’s urging, there actually isn’t a train to Canada on the north side of Lake Eerie, one has to circumnavigate it to get from Chicago to Toronto.

Due to my increasing fatigue and dying batteries, the only photo I got in Chicago was of Hemingway’s birthplace (and it turns I had read the hours wrong and couldn’t even go inside):

Hemingway birthplace

Authenticity note: As the trip wound down, I really didn’t feel like writing about this segment, so I actually didn’t get around to it untill today (late March). The final post though, was actually written in “the heat of the moment”.


I’m not sure why I thought Los Angeles was worth stopping in, but I suppose I just scheduled it in as a large city worth seeing along the way. Well, I saw it.

With no couchsurfing hosts forthcoming yet again, I headed to a Hollywood hostel listed in my guidebook after stepping off the Pacific Surfliner. In the time it took to find said hostel, find out there was no room at the inn, and find another hostel, I had determined that Hollywood didn’t have much to offer me. While it was nice to see one or two archetypal palm tree-encircled mansions, the packed streets of tourists, the names of celebrities in the pavement, and the creepy Scientology presence just didn’t appeal to me.

Waking up the next morning, I read through my guidebook to find out what the other parts of LA had to offer; turns out that many of the few things I wanted to see were closed (not because it was Martin Luther King Day, but because it was Monday), and the destinations that remained after that would require hours upon hours on the public transit system – which I’d been repeatedly told was atrocious. After brooding around the hostel kitchen for an hour, I remembered that flexibility was the whole point of my rail pass, and made the snap decision to catch the noon train to Santa Barbara, and write off LA. Instantly, my mood brightened, and I realized just how much I hadn’t been looking forward to the remaining day and half in Los Angeles. After checking out of the most anal-retentive hostel I’ve ever seen (charging $5 per day for wifi? Come on.), I got on the subway and was free. All I can say for the second biggest city in America is that it has a nice train station.

Union Station, LA

The train to Santa Barbara accorded some nice scenery once we got beyond the sprawl. Upon arrival, it seemed completely idyllic compared to my departure point; the train station was only a few blocks from the beach, where the sun shone down on bicycling kids (again, MLK Day) and the smell of the sea wafted in. Once the sun went down I met up with my host, a late-20s IT manager who, although pretty quiet, afforded me not just a proper bed, but an entire guest room.

Rainy Santa Barbara

The next morning, my hopes of another such day were shattered by pouring rain. Hoping to wait it out, I spent a couple hours online, catching up on a few things, but eventually decided to give Santa Barbara a fair shake, and headed down town. After shivering on the pier and walking down the muddy beach, I browsed through a used-book store, guessing that I might need to prepare for some indoor activities. I then hit up SB’s historical offerings – a small museum, the remnants of the original Spanish presidio (military fort), the bell tower of the county courthouse, and finally, the original Catholic mission, which featured some moderately impartial depictions of the mission’s historical role as a kind of priest-administered commune for “Indians” who converted to Catholicism.

Old Mission

The rain hadn’t stopped by the next morning, and I was informed by an Amtrak staff member that my hopes of escaping the storm were fruitless – the forecast was wet for up until long after I’d have left California. My weather-related complains to any local, however, were quickly rebuffed with an explanation of how badly the area needed precipitation. Oops – bad for the silly boy who decided January was a good time to check out the west coast, and good for farmers and firefighters, I guess.

I noticed many cycle tourists in Santa Barbara – it seemed to be the one place where my urban-based itinerary and what I assume is a cyclist’s coast- and rural-based itinerary overlap. A middle-aged French cyclotourist I noticed was clearly not having the rain, as he had bought a train ticket; although I forgot to snap a photo, all the California trains have bike racks on the lower level. This had me thinking that a great trip, shorter than cycling the entire length of California, would be to combine cycling with the 7-days-out-of-21 California-only rail pass ($150) – and of course, that the racks are an awesome idea. Especially for the smaller cities like Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, whose main attraction is being close to beautiful wilderness, having the ability to get out of town – without having to worry about a car – would be great.

It turns out that rain isn’t conducive to train travel either – thanks to what we were told were obligatory weather-induced safety inspections, my three hour ride north to San Luis Obispo turned into a five hour ordeal. I didn’t really mind, though; one of these stops was fortuitously within ranged of an unlocked wireless internet server, so I easily put in the time, and more importantly than that, this was one of the most beautiful train segments thus far. Completely out of view of the interstate – and even dirt roads, for that matter – this route ran directly beside the increasingly jagged coastline, which was devoid of any signs of human contact beyond the smooth rocking of the train itself.

It also featured what looked like the greatest train stop ever:

A sweet train stop

The only problem with the delay was that my enthusiastic host had planned to meet me at the station, at the train’s scheduled arrival time (I guess this may be a hint as to why ever other host has asked me to call them upon arrival instead of going by the timetable). He, a Colorado native studying mechanical engineering at CalPoly, had to leave for class, but after I got some laundry done we met up and he took me to a hilariously stereotypical engineering-student household, where I met his incredibly laid back room mates and joined in a long evening of video games and reality television. While this wasn’t exactly the kind of house where clean dishes were easy to come by, it was definitely the most relaxed couchsurfing I’ve done so far, not so much because of any particular uptight nature of previous hosts, but just because of the untainted apathy of these guys. It reminded me a lot of my own “college” house, with its perpetually unlocked front door and obsession with lowering bills – the engineers were burning stolen pallets to keep warm without turning on the gas heat, and were working on a place to secure free egg cartons via Craigslist for the same purpose. Strangely enough in the face of such frugality, all five room mates owned cars. Oh, California.

The next morning, given the rolling hills encroaching on the town, the fact that I knew there wasn’t going to be any more sunshine for me, and that “SLO”, as it’s known, didn’t have much to offer in the way of culture, I decided to throw on my gaiters, throw in my contacts and head out on a hike. The six mile loop up to Bishop’s Peak is a great hike, given that it’s within walking distance of the city center, and while all I did at the top was stare out into the fog while my teeth chattered, I’m sure it’s a beautiful lookout. Maybe it was just the rain, but the green hills around SLO seemed a lot like Scotland to me.

Bishop Peak

I also prepared for my long, albeit staggered, train ride back east by buying some used paperbacks – which I was smart enough to do before the hike, so I not only carried the weight of them up that trail, but got them wet as well.

After a few more hours of video games, and failing to dry out my boots (which I unhappily realised I would need in Salt Lake City, where it was -8), my host gave me a ride to the train station, where I caught the midnight bus heading north.

The Pacific Surfliner, the train from Los Angeles to San Diego which I connected to from Merced, runs deliciously close to the shore and gave me a gorgeous beach sunset, a nice end to a “travel day”. While certainly faster than the long-distance trains, the near-commuter nature of this and the Capitol Corridor line (Sacramento-Oakland) do make the ride feel more like a chore and less like a vacation – constant PA announcements about tickets, terse staff, and passengers in a hurry.

Due to a combination of my procrastination on sending out requests and some technical issues with the Couchsurfing website, I found no hosts in San Diego and was forced to turn to a hostel. While it doubled my daily budget, it was nice to have a change of pace. While my couchsurfing hosts have been great, it’s much like hitchhiking in that you must be “always on”; that is, I feel the need to offer up interesting conversation and other attractive guest qualities in exchange for the hospitality I’m getting. Again, while certainly a favourable transaction, it does get exhausting (much like hitchhiking). So it was nice to spend some time by myself, without the pressure of performing. At the same time, it was nice to be in the hostel environment, talking to fellow travellers; while CS hosts are usually travel enthuisiasts, it’s not quite the same when they are in their day-to-day routine of work, family, etc.

The CS website is back up and running, so hopefully some hosts are forthcoming for Los Angeles and Santa Barbara (I’m definitely back to diligently sending out my requests more than 48 hours in advance). My friend who originally told me about Couchsurfing has a theory that larger cities are harder to find accommodation in, because everyone feels that someone else will put you up, whereas in small towns (say Courtenay, BC or Merced, CA) CS users are more likely to feel they are your only hope.

San Diego has loads to offer to travelers, and if I where in the habit of flying into cities for little more than a weekend, it would be a great pick. I barely scratched the surface on the huge collections of museums in Balboa Park, and there were many possible day trips to nearby Californian and Mexican sites (for example, kayaking or surfing). Balboa, while touted as “the largest urban park in the US”, I think is more aptly described as a “cultural park”; while offering some great sites such as museums, preserved nature was hard to find outside the botanical gardens.

Balboa Parking Lot

It was also way too car-oriented for my tastes – “biggest parking lot in an urban park in the US”, maybe? While my environmental opposition to cars is well-known, I really feel in this case that the roads, parking lots and noisy traffic present as much an aesthetic blight on the park as they do to a political annoyance to a tree-hugger like myself.

Cabrillo lookout

After resisting the urge to rent a bike in both Portland and San Francisco, I gave in upon finding a cheap deal offered by the hostel. Most importantly, this allowed me to ride around the city going through my Google Maps-generated list of opticians in an attempt to get my hostel-stomped glasses repaired – thanks to a repair-specialty place, $35 and 10 minutes later, I had avoided myopic despair. Then I headed up to Cabrillo National Monument, which provided a fantastic panorama of the city and harbour, as well as some more of those Euro-centric hero-worshipping explorer tales. As an added bonus, I got to coast through an active naval base (San Diego is like Halifax in this way, except warmer and more Spanish) and get a taste of what January cycling is like for Californians. It really does seem like a bike tour is the best way to explore this land of the car, and I’m quite jealous of my friend who pedaled from Vancouver to Mexico a few years back.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery 3

While I didn’t have any idea of what to do in Tijuana, I couldn’t resist the prospect of a 45-minute trolley ride’s ability to officially designate this a “3 country” trip. I guess I got what I bargained for, spending a few hours walking through tourist-oriented crafts and “Cuban” cigar stalls, being constantly yelled at by taxi drivers and restaurant hosts, and seeing an incredibly high density of pharmacies. The constant signs offering “generic Viagra, 30% off” almost have me suspecting that there are difference in patent law between Mexico and the US; it looks like Canada doesn’t have a monopoly on cross-border drug shopping.

Border trade

On the positive side, it was the most laidback border crossing I’ve seen outside the Schengen Agreement countries; walking across to Mexico is just that, and on the return, the customs agent gave my passport the briefest of glances, albeit after a half-hour wait in line.

While usually I am heavy reader while travelling, I haven’t read much beyond my guidebook at this point – I blame the laptop and iPod. I decided to remedy this by picking up a Kerouac novel (yes, rather stereotypical of me) as well as the new Atlantic; both were consumed within 24 hours, perhaps evidence of some literary hunger unfulfilled by Rough Guides and Wikipedia.

On a Sunday morning, I left town just as some football-related hysteria was taking over, judging by the jerseys.

Oh, and some good news: it looks like a tentative agreement has averted a first-ever Amtrak strike.

Merced, apparently a city of 60,000, felt much smaller than that in the few hours I was there, and not in a good way. For the nights before and after my day trip to Yosemite, I was hosted by a rambunctuous 24-year-old Mexican-American who not only agreed to put me on the same night he was attending a wedding, but also scored me a free movie pass so I could put in the time during said ceremony. A folklore enthusiast, he was eager to make his case that Merced was an “evil” town, explaining the numerous gruesome murders in its past. If that’s true, then it’s an example which proves the banality of evil.

Half dome

Yosemite, the only non-urban national park that I’m able to reach through my pass (thanks to Amtrak-operated buses), was splendid. Similar in flavour to the national parks of the Canadian Rockies, it also felt much less developed – that is, had a much smaller town site, at least in the Valley, than Jasper or Banff. Much like my time in the Rockies, I didn’t have time to get much beyond the town and a quick day-hike, so this comparison may be entirely unfair to the backcountry, I’m not sure.

Even in the short time I was there, the park offered up some breathtaking views, and it’s easy to see how it inspired so many early environmentalists to take up the cause of conservation. Hopefully at some point I can return and do some actual camping.

From Sacramento, it was a quick commuter train to San Francisco, where I was greeted by a familiar face, a debater friend of mine who has been in SF for about six months working for everyone’s favourite hi-tech monolith, Google. He was nice enough to host me for the duration – and to provide me with a much-needed mailing address, where my American bank could send me a debit card to replace the one I left in a Seattle ATM. It turns out that while a de-regulated banking system does mean fewer fees, it also means you’re not guaranteed a bank in every city: “What you do mean there are no Chase Manhattans in California?”

At Google, they ride bikes

As far as I can tell, working for Google is as great as it seems. My friend bikes downtown every day where he hops on the Google bus, which takes him to their campus deep in the suburbs. Once he gets to work, there are 17 different free restaurants for him to eat at all day, and neither typical cafeteria fare nor typical menus – items are coloured-coded from green to red for dietary value, and vegetarian as well as vegan food is clearly denoted. If he wanted to lug his laundry to work, he could also do it for free there, and get a massage while his jeans go through the rinse cycle. Let’s not forget stock options, although he nonchalantly described them as “post-IPO”. I also got a chance to hang out with some of his fellow Googlers, and I can honestly say they are the most extroverted and interesting group of engineers I’ve met (outside debating). If they’re engineers and read political philosophy in their spare time, does that mean I have to read engineering texts in my spare time to feel like their equal?

Trying to play the skeptic, I asked if the company was living up to its motto of “Don’t Be Evil”; the answer I got was a unanimous “yes”. It seems that Google has successfully inculcated its employees with the goal of “changing the world and maybe making some money along the way”, as least the ones I talked to.

The term “campus” definitely felt appropriate at the Googleplex; it reminded me more of university than any workplace. Although as a non-employee, I only got a limited tour, but there was still much of interest for a Google enthusiast like myself. I got to see the solar panels that make 30% of the complex’s power; see actual computers used by actual Google employees (and possibly even some running Goobuntu); saw funky furniture and the staff library; and of course, got to sip pomegranate-blueberry juice while waiting in the lobby. I couldn’t get a T-shirt, but only because there is a live webcam monitoring the T-shirt locker, so apparently the instant it gets re-stocked it’s instantly depleted – oh, the woes of radical transparency.

Stanford doorway

On the train back from Mountain View, I briefly stopped at Stanford. While I was expecting a typical Ivy League campus, the Spanish missionary-style architecture gave it a certain Californian, or at least Mediterranean, feel. While I didn’t get a chance to check out Berkeley while in SF, it seems impossible to build an ugly university around here.

San Francisco is now certainly my favourite American city. While I did use some time here to relax, sleeping and generally recharging (including trying to beat a cold I’ve picked up), the city still left a strong impression on me. While offering a downtown that felt as alive and bustling as New York or London, it also is filled with natural areas such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach, where sunshine, breeze and smell of saltwater gave me a rush of tropical serenity. (In a children’s literature-related flashback, I kept thinking of The Island of the Blue Dolphins while looking out from the coast). Combined with its high output in both culture and technological areas, SF appears in every way be a great place to live.

Surfing near the bridge

As a public transit geek, I couldn’t resist a ride on the cable car system, although I was disappointed to learn it is almost exclusively used by tourists and never for actual commuting. This also explained the most expensive transit day-pass I’ve ever seen, at $11/day, since it included otherwise $5/trip cable car. I still got my money’s worth, though, with SF’s great network of streetcars, buses and light rail.

I bought a $20 pair of sneakers, both because my boots were getting rather warm for the climate, and because I was admonished by a Mountain Equipment Co-op staffer that “pavement wears down hiking boots worse than anything else” after I sheepishly returned my last, prematurely destroyed pair. With the odds of snow getting lower with each mile southward, I could feel the leather wearing away with every sidewalk step.

Unfortunately this now puts my total gear collection at an embarassingly high and heavy level. I blame this both on packing while in a cold climate (explaining the winter jacket, boots and long johns), and on going overboard with gadgets (laptop + power cord, iPod + USB cord + headphones, camera + USB cord + battery charger). I am now subject to the same feeling I’ve had almost every time I’ve travelled – of having too much stuff.

The laptop, on balance, was worth bringing. Its value in both finding Couchsurfing hosts and navigating cities (especially using Google Transit, which works for many west coast cities) is quite high – uploading photos on the fly and blogging are also much easier, especially with the ubiquotousness of free wifi on the west coast. The costs are both the size and weight, as well as the added stress of worrying about a thousand-dollar item all the time. The hidden cost, of course, is that I end up spending far more time online than I should, getting sucked into Google Reader when I should be exploring. In a perfect world, I think that an internet-enabled PDA or cell phone would be ideal, as it would allow me to use it for “essential” functions at any time, but leave longer tasks like blogging to internet cafes, and thus cutting down on wasted online time.

My personal appraisal of a city (or country) always concerns whether I feel like I haven’t had enough time there, whether an eventual return will be necessary to completely “experience” a place. San Francisco certainly passes this test and I will see it in the future.

(As a side note, the strategy of “definite return” also justifies forgoing expensive tourist destinations, like the Alcratraz tour…)

The Pacific Northwest train, The Cascades, was as-advertised: European-style, modern and fast. As we zoomed through towns, monitors tracked our journey, similar to airplanes and later on, a mediocre film was shown (also similar). While The Canadian was nice, it was nice in a historical way – here, I actually felt like I was getting somewhere. I wanted to see more of the Northwestern states than just one city, and with no train going to coast, the answer was obvious: state capitals. Thus, my first stop after Seattle was Olympia, WA.
Washington capitol

Things didn’t start well for this town when I realized it had an egregiously bad location for its train station (a 40 minute bus ride from downtown), but I got an idea of what a quiet Washington town is like. I got a very thorough tour of the state legislature, thanks to my being the only tour participant, with two guides, both retired volunteers. I learned the oddities of the state constitution, which guaranteed education, prohibited income tax, and mandated part-time legislators. The best part of a personal tour like this was getting to play the piano in the ballroom, which I wasn’t too interested in, but my elderly guide insisted upon:
Playing the piano
After that, another 40 minutes on the city bus, and I returned to the station where I got some travel advice from some other retiree-volunteers.

Roses in the Rose City
I was eager to experience Portland, which I’ve long read of as being the most well-planned, most bikeable and most environmentalist city in North America. All three of these things turned out to be true, and evident with even such a short examination as a gave it. Unfortunately, though, for a city of 3.5 million, Portland has very little to offer the tourist, especially a car-free tourist who can’t drive to the mountains. It’s kind of like a reversed New York: it’s fantastic to live there, but if you dropped by for a week you’d be bored to tears. Not to be too hard on Portland – the Oregon History Museum was very interesting, containing exhibits that examined the American dreams of returning GIs after WW2, and another that discussion opinions on many of the political issues that make Oregon unique (euthanasia, medical marijuana, land use, etc.), and I found lots to do. I just got the feeling in my mere day and a half that while I could love this city in many ways – as an environmentalist, an urbanist, a political scientist – but as a tourist, not so much.

I read about how Oregon’s well known state-wide land-use planning is being threatened by Measure 37, which requires that property owners who are economically hurt by environmental and planning regulations are entitled to full compensation. Clearly, this is ludicrous, because it assumes that the status quo is an acceptable distribution of costs and benefits; if I were a citizen of this state of citizen-initiated referendum, I’d like to bring forth the inverse law: that is, if I’m economically hurt (say, lost wages due to asthma or property damage due to flooding) by a land-owner’s environmentally destructive property use, then they are required to compensate me (and everyone else).

My host in Portland was a transplanted southerner who’d only been in the city for 4 months. He’s a frequent traveller and we had the kind of conversations that are common at hostels everywhere: where are you from, how long have you been on the road, what countries have you been to, what countries do you plan to go to, let’s trade emails. He claimed that, as a new resident, he was trying to run as his life “as stereotypically Portland as possible”. While this didn’t extend to his new job as a car salesman, it did include him taking me to a rock climbing gym, as a first venture into the sport for me.

Ron Paul supporters

After Portland came two more state capitals, with an overnight train (The Coast Starlight, known as the most popular train in America and feels like it too; a sparsely-populated VIA train filled with young adventurers and friendly public servants, this ain’t ) in between. I’m starting to see the similarities between state capitals, but as a politics geeks, I still can’t say no to the next one. It turns out that Salem, OR and Sacramento, CA, are both as sleepy and historic as Olympia; there were, however, different trivia to be learned. Oregon has the inverse taxes of Washington – no sales tax, but heavy income tax. It shares the part-time legislator goal, only sitting 60 days per year – I didn’t want to ask the guide how many millions of budget dollars per day that meant they were legislating on.

Like my other tours, the Salem one included a token reference to aboriginals: “As we all known, the first Oregonians were Indians” – I winced, wondering if that’s how they thought of themselves. I also learned that unsurprisingly, Maria Shriver was the first First Lady to have her own office in the legislature. Sacramento also included the State Railroad Museum, which satisfied my desire for more knowledge of my mode of transport, as well as adding a healthy dose to the “On westward / Manifest Destiny / Hard-working covered-wagon driving pioneers” narrative which all the coastal states seem to share.

From Sacramento, it’s on to a much more exciting introduction to Californian culture: San Francisco. Preview: I’m staying with someone who works for Google!


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