Days 2, 3 & 4: Vancouver & Seattle

09Jan08

Jasper station
It turns out that riding a heavily-delayed train is an enjoyable experience. While I did have to wait an unexpected 4 hours in the Edmonton train station, I did get to enjoy three hot meals that would have otherwise been unavailable to those of in coach (at least for free). The food was pretty good, far beyond anything I’ve ever eaten on a plane, and the chance to sit at a dining car table with three strangers was enjoyable (and reminded me of my unpopular idea of mandatory random seating at debate tournament banquets).
The Canadian's observatory
Even in coach, sleeping on a train sure beats sleeping on a bus (or an airplane, for that matter): the seats reclined to a decent degree and combine with pull-out footrests. Although we passed through the Rockies in the dark, we did get the “rare” sight the Fraser Canyon the following day – rare because when the train is on time, it’s dark at that point.
Vancouver station
Although Vancouver is my favourite city, it received a short shrift on this trip; I arrive at 4pm and left the following morning. As much as I love the city, I’ve seen most of the tourist sites (save Grouse Mountain) and more importantly, will probably return many times in the future. I picked up some supplies at Mountain Equipment Co-op, did some research on Seattle and Portland, and stayed with some friends of mine. Upon entering their one-room apartment in Port Moody (25km from the city centre), I was told that “this is what a quarter million dollars buys you in Vancouver”. Ouch. Hopefully those housing prices level out after the Olympics. We chatted about debate gossip, law schools (I was subject to the hard sell for the University of Victoria) and I got some tips for what to see on the American west coast. This isn’t the first time I’ve called these particular Vancouverites at 9pm, begging for a place to stay, so hopefully I can reciprocate at some point in the future.

The following morning I caught the Amtrak-operated bus to Seattle. That’s right – the 30-day rail pass involves buses, as Amtrak operates them to supplement its rail coverage. Although still a step up from Greyhound, I’m hoping to avoid these whenever possible. I’ve also been told multiple times that the Seattle-Vancouver train ride is quite scenic, but this time of year it’s only at night. The border crossing was quick, which a pleasant surprise that put us in Seattle an hour ahead of schedule.

Seattle is as great as I’d expected, given its Pacific Northwest character; the gray sky and light rain were also unsurprising. The Seattle Public Library, which I’d watched a TED talk about, completely blew me away – it’s now probably my favourite building on the planet. From the bright-yellow escalators to the glass walls to the unorthodox shape to the “book spiral” (where the entire Dewey Decimal system is laid out over 3 floors on a shallow incline), it is incredibly functional and aesthetically satisfying. For anyone visiting Seattle who has a moderate interest in architecture or libraries, this is a must-see.

Seattle Public Library - living room


I visited the flagship stores of a couple of gear manufacturers (REI, Outdoor Research) and justified some outrageously expensive coffee as “local cuisine”. The Pike Place Market, while historically interesting, wasn’t that useful to someone trying to conserve his dollars. The Seattle science fiction museum is a good concept, if a bit on the small side; I thought it struck a good balance between highbrow genre analysis (“Feminism in Science Fiction”) and pure, unadulterated fandom (the captain’s chair from Star Trek).

I checked out a gold rush museum run by the National Park Service, where I bought my “National Park Passport” – that’s right, I now will be getting a date-stamp at every American national park I visit. How geeky is that?

Best of all, these two sights reminded me of the common political ground I share with this area of the world:

Seattle City Hall banner
License plate
I’m pleased to report that couchsurfing was a stunning success – my host picked me up at the train station, gave me a comfortable futon for two nights, my own set of keys, and we had dinner with some interesting friends of his. It was pretty much the ideal outcome, because not only did I get a free place, but I got to spend time talking to genuine “locals”. Hopefully this is a trend that continues. Onward down the coast!

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