Tell 'em what I took, man!

Reflections of a repatriated ex-patriot

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Trip to San Francisco

I had a meager two days to settle into my temporary home in Denver before getting on the California Zephyr and riding out to San Fran for a friend's wedding. The sun was shining the first day, so I made some hay, signing on with Robert Half Technology to try to get my foot in the door in an IT helpdesk position. I scored pretty well on the tests, but I have yet to see any definitive results. Hopefully next week interviews will be forthcoming. Besides, it was time for vacation so there was no need to worry about inconsequential crap like work.

My friend and I went down to Union Station on the 30th hurrying to catch the 8:05 train, which was, naturally, delayed a little over two hours. So we walked down the 16th Street Mall to find a place for breakfast, and our bellies full, trundled on back to catch our train. The inital part of the ride was breathtaking as we went up through the still snow-covered Rockies to Winter Park / Granby station. The Dome Car definitely makes the ride more scenic, as well as providing a welcome break from the monotony of the coach. I was worried a little that it might be uncomfortable trying to sleep on the coach seats, and that it might have been better to shell out the extra cash for a sleeper, but once I sat down, I knew my concerns were unfounded. The coach seats recline at a deep angle and offer plenty of leg room. I just had to accept not being able to shower for two days. No biggie, 'cuz I'm adaptable like that. I was pleased with the decision to make the trip out by train because of the view afforded me and the familar comfort of being able to walk around the cars with few restrictions. It reminded me of those trips I used to take out of Hlavni Nadrazi in Prague to Dresden, Berlin, Bratislavia, Vienna, Budapest and Cesky Krumlov.

If you just want to take the train as a method to get to some premier ski resorts from Denver, thereby avoiding the ever-crowded I-70, I highly recommend it! In fact the entire route through Colorado, via Granby, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction is not a bad way to view the countryside. The highlight of the Colorado corridor is of course the Glenwood Canyon. On the opposite bank from the technological marvel that is that stretch of I-70, you are enthralled by views high up the Canyon Walls. The scene is just staggering, even better than what you would see driving along the highway. I stayed in the dome car nearly the whole of that stretch, my eyes transfixed on the abundant natural beauty of the American West.

The stretch of rail between Grand Junction and Green River, Utah was no less exciting. The sun was beginning to set and the unusal rock formations, millions of years in the making, can't help but capture your imagination. It was my first time in Utah, and I definitely hope to make the trip to Arches National Park, Moab, and the Canyonlands someday to see the dramatic formations that we only caught desultory glimpes of from the train.

By midnight we had arrived in Salt Lake. Obviously there wasn't much to see in the darkness but I did catch a glimpse of the Mormon Tabernacle, at least I think that's what it was. Sunrise found me waking up with a view of the vast expanse of the Nevada desert. That's when I realized just how slow we'd been going. We couldn't have been pushing more than 45 mph or so the entire trip, which can get really grueling with the uniform desert vista and nothing but an Ipod and Dostoyevsky to keep you company.

Just outside of Winnemucca Station we came to a complete stop. It was here I realized how unfair it must be for the Amtrak folks to have to subjugate themselves to the whims of Union Pacific, who dictate not only when but if they can use their rails. Apparently there were some freighters behind schedule and we had to wait a whole four hours before we could continue our crawl into Reno. Finally we reached the Sierra Nevadas and the terrain opened itself up to some more spectacular scenery. By the time we had reached the end of the line, Emoryville, we had travelled a good 35 hours. It seemed as though it had been much longer, the moment of departure from Union Station in Denver like a distant memory.

We caught the bus to Ferry Station at one of the many piers along the Embarcadero, and descending the Bay Bridge, beheld the shimmering lights of the city. San Fran is in a word, remarkable. It's easily one of the most unique American cities I've ever been to. The city has a real interest in reducing emissions as evinced by the expansive MUNI trolleybus system and the BART rails which take you from the city center directly to the airport in under 30 minutes. The topography of old San Fran is unique as well with steep streets canyoned by old Victorian Townhomes, some of which direct your gaze straight out to the sea. We were picked up by my friend's cousin whose couch and cot we would surf for the next four nights. That night we went down to the local bar and had a brief tour around our area, just north of the notorious Haight Ashbury. The next morning we got up, threw on our fancy duds and walked down to the Great American Music Hall, the venue for the wedding. Escorted as we were into an ornate deep red interior with ceiling frescoes and gold trim I realized that the bride, who had been a fellow teacher in Prague, had really gone all out for her big day. I won't go into the details of the cermony and reception, but suffice it to say four martinis and seeing friends you hadn't seen for several years in a city you've never been to is hella cool!

That evening found us at a local bar for an open mic poetry reading of which there is no shortage of in San Francisco. Back in Houston I went to a couple of these, but there just didn't seem to be much spirit in them. People were either uber-pretentious or just embarrassing to watch. Made skeptical by such experiences, I was happy to be exposed to some real talent and had a kind of rekindling of my interest in literture. San Francisco is a cultural mecca, and not just for its abundance of grand halls. You get the feeling of a thriving, for lack of a better word, plebian art scene where folks take a deeper interest in painting, music, literature than in your average city; where people might actually stop and listen for a moment to a street corner orator-- a refreshing break from strip malls and the ho-hum nine-to-five.

The second night found us in the Mission District, which I would describe as working class chic; where the Revolution, though wearing more fashionable clothes than it used to, still will not be televised. We listened to more poetry, since my freind's cousin was recruiting talent for the second annual poem dome, where artisans from all over the city gather to spit their venom in the confines of San Fran's immaculate City Hall. This night wasn't nearly as good as the first, or at least didn't start out that way since we left to meet another cousin halfway through. It consisted of a few decent poems and some less than inspiring hip-hop. We didn't really get a chance to do much typical tourist sightseeing, but that's OK because I always like to leave a little for a second visit, but we did make it down to Chinatown on day three for some shopping, damn good seafood and stiff Mai Tais at the Empress of China restaurant. We went down the main drag of Chinatown out to a major thoroughfare, the name of which escapes me, as you would expect after some stiff-ass Mai Tais, into the City Lights Bookstore, owned to this day by the Beat Poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. That alone makes me want to make a second trip!