Publisher’s note: Aftre a pandemic hiatus, Nathaniel Brown of Edmonds is on another train trip adventure, and will share reports about his travels.
“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.”
– Anna Funder, ‘Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall.’
I have always loved trains. When I was little, we used to take the Union Pacific’s City of Portland to Chicago, have a deliriously wonderful day at a museum or a movie, and then take the overnight Pennsylvania Railroad train on to visit family in Philadelphia; later, after moving to Edmonds, it would be the Empire Builder for the Chicago leg of the trip. I think we did it every year until I was 16, and then it was air travel. Later, I rediscovered the love of trains in the UK and England. That love has never worn off.
In the last few years I’ve taken the Empire Builder from Edmonds to Chicago, then the Lake Shore Limited to NYC trip to catch the Queen Mary 2 for the crossing to the UK. Then the Coast Starlight to San Francisco, connecting to the California Zephyr to Chicago. The most recent trip was the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles and the Southwest Chief to Chicago. Such train names carry the suggestive power of poetry, novels or even movies, and these trips have shown me a great deal of America I’d never have seen otherwise. The Zephyr and the Chief cross magnificent terrain and for sheer, spectacular scenery they can’t be beaten. Travel toward summer for longer days to see more.
This year’s trip wraps it all up. I’m circumtraining (if you can circumvallate a city, or circumambulate a park, you can certainly circumtrain the country!) Seattle-Los Angeles-New Orleans-New York-Chicago-Edmonds. The only non-train segment being a car ride from Edmonds to Seattle, as there was no connection to King Street on Sunday.
Well, here I am in L.A. — and the friends I planned to spent the evening with came down with (mild) COVID symptoms — so I’m faced with an evening of debauchery all on my own. This means a drink in the bar at the hotel, a cocktail at the Water Grill just down the street, and a max of one glass of white to go with the planned Oysters Rockefeller and scallops. Then a book and bed.
The trip got off to a nerve-wracking start when just before my ride to King Street station arrived, I got a text from Amtrak that a COVID test was needed within 24 hours prior to departure, and of course their web link wouldn’t work. Happily, at the station no one knew anything about it — so I was able to board the train the way we always did in the days before the Plague. (Question: why are the sleepers always as far away from the gate as possible – except in Edmonds?)
The universe has ordained that bread always lands butter-side down when dropped on the floor, so it seemed natural that my roomette was on the left side of the train, when most of the good scenery – the Tacoma Narrows, San Francisco from across the bay, and best of all, the ocean for the last hours of daylight – was on the right side. Fortunately, my cabin attendant was able to switch me to the right side when a through passenger from Olympia didn’t make it — so the bread was off the floor and a new piece substituted.
Crossing the Cascades as evening closed in was magnificent — a slow ascent from pines to patches of snow, to real snow, to heavily snowing and perhaps a meter of snow. Murder on the Coast Starlight. Death at Dyatlov Pass… There’s something about huge empty forests, heavy snow… Spotted a lone elk, and then a herd of them at a distance.
Fog and rain in northern California, so no view of San Francisco, but then those bare, lumpy hills as you approach the sea, a sudden glimpse of the sea between hills, and then the rails running along the coast, sand, more and more surf as we moved south, summer camp sites starting to come to life, and north of Santa Barbara, burnt trees along the tracks from the wildfires there.
In L.A. at about 9 p.m., a delightfully garrulous elderly cabby to the Biltmore, a delightful guy even older than me, and after 36 hours on the train, a shower! Missing a leg, this is done sitting in the tub, which is all very well until you have to find a way to extract yourself!
Alas, poor Biltmore, quite chap-fallen. The once-great Biltmore is surrounded now by boarded-up businesses, something of a shadow of its former grandeur. Understaffed, a bit echoey with spaces too large for the number of people using them, doors on three sides bearing taped-on, laser-printed notices that the only way in is on Grand Street, carpets a bit worse for wear. A minatory version of the Grand Budapest Hotel on the downward slide, though long before the plastic chairs in the lobby!
I had neglected to pack one or two things, so in the morning I walked to a drug store and then a Target, both of which were much further than it looked on the map. The Target was well concealed in a subterranean mall, which threw the GPS on my phone for a loop. As a result, I circumnavigated the right place, but the nice waiter in the Dublin pub gave me directions, and out of courtesy (ahem!) I had a cold beer, which worked wonders; she followed me out the door to point to where I needed to go, which was very kind. It has been my experience that strangers are almost always friendly and helpful if approached for help or information. I used to be very shy of speaking to “the man on the street,” but old age and experience have convinced me that people really are generally helpful and even friendly if you are respectful and friendly to them. I tend to think that you can always make someone else’s day a bit better by taking a chance on being nice; a smile in passing works wonders. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
But it was hot after Seattle, and I was overdressed and sweat-drenched when I got back to the Biltmore, where I collapsed on the bed for a nap and an hour of reading — now down to the bar for a warmer-upper, and then the short walk to the restaurant.
Next day: The Water Grill attracts mixed notices on Yelp! but lots of 5 stars, and as it’s 50 yards from the Biltmore, it seemed a good idea to try it. I had a table to myself, across from a party who looked like Russian oligarchs from central casting. I had a delightful server, and the whole place was upscale, busy, vibrant, a bit loud, and obviously an “in” spot. The Oysters Rockefeller, however, were startlingly unmemorable, a dubious 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with Edmonds’ own Charcoal defining the 10. Alas, the scallops were about the same, as well as sloshed over to once side of the plate by the waiter — 5, with Charcoal at 10; Clos Maggiore, in London, gets an impossible 10.5, where “they have raised the lowly scallop to a zenith of perfection which renders ill-advised attempts to emulate them hopeless, and a vanity,” but I live in hope.
Wednesday – I’m afraid yesterday’s death march was to much for these old bones. Last night I arranged a 3 o’clock checkout, and today I slept in, then made some coffee (a miracle! The in-room coffee machines actually make a lot of coffee with each brew, not the usual lukewarm demi-tasse masquerading as a full cup!) and finished The Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison. I then had a late breakfast in the otherwise empty Rendezvous Court, and the took an Uber to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
I hardly know what to say about the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. It’s too big, too defying of normal expectations, too daring to form a coherent impression on one visit, and that visit outside service hours. I like to experience a church coming to life for its intended use, and in really old buildings, say in England, the weight of generations passing through the church adds to the feeling that
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
— Eliot, Burnt Norton
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
— Eliot, Little Gidding
Our Lady of the Angels somehow felt too new for the experience Eliot describes; but such things are deeply personal.
I stopped and sat for half an hour at the back, for a better view of the nave. It is enormous. It is intense. It is magnificent but also, I thought, a little crushing, an opposite to the sometimes impossibly high ceilings of Gothic arches aren’t. Bear in mind that all this is deeply subjective, something especially true, I think, in any ecclesiastical building.
The cathedral opened as the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles in 2002, replacing the former cathedral, destroyed by the earthquake of 1994. The architect was the Pitzer Prize-winning Spanish architect Raphael Moneo, who adopted a post-modern style that avoids right angles and almost anything traditional; it is certainly a powerful, clean start defining its own new direction. The building generates some 15% of its own power with solar panels.
So much for the facts. For me, the seating in the name, which slopes gently down toward the alter, seemed both to invite participation, and felt almost magnetic in its pull down to what traditionally would have been the crossing. Along the walls, in a series of tapestries by John Nava, a procession, “The Communion of the Saints,” hangs, in an almost sculptural style which brought to mind Giotto, or perhaps Pierro della Francesca – the figures depict the broad humanity of the clouds of witness we call saints: we see children, Asians, old and bearded figures, tonsured monks, Native Americans, bishops, all looking toward the alter with rapt attention; if the cathedral were not worth visiting for its own sake, these tapestries would be sufficient reason to spend some time in contemplation.
My favorite childhood hymn came immediately to min
I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
… You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store,
in church, by the sea, in the house next door;
they are saints of God, whether rich or poor,
and I mean to be one too.
— Lesbia Scott, 1929
Oddly, I felt the cathedral looked much smaller outside than it did from the inside. The result of views and perspectives carefully guided by the paths from the entry gates, and the plaza before the entrance, with its bnches and fountains and stairs? A remarkable experience in total.
I can’t resist one last picture, taken of a building near the cathedral, which I have titled either The End of Architecture, or perhaps Too Much Architecture:
— By Nathaniel Brown
Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden. He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement.