It was great to get away and it’s good now to be back home. Most of my time away was spent reading and relaxing. Daily, I would take long walks, enjoy coffee on the porch with a book and an eye out for freighters. In the evening, after returning from a walk I would do the same with a bourbon. The air remained mostly cool and even the days of rain felt good. I preached twice at the Union Presbyterian Church in Detour Village.
Reading while away
My reading varied greatly. I spent a lot of time with the Bible and a couple commentaries on Daniel in preparation for preaching on the book this fall. I finished reading a wonderful book on reading and writing poetry (Gregory Orr’s, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry). This book had many exercises, some of which I did, leaving notes in my journal such as the poem I printed below.
I also enjoyed Casey Tygrett’s As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories in Our Spiritual Life. Like Orr’s book on poetry, this book had many exercises, of which I did most as a way to ponder memories. Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, was eye opening. Thurman was a classmate and friend of Martin Luther King Jr’s father and this short book written in the 1940s captures the meaning of the gospel for those who lived in a segregated world with many opportunities denied. Another book that I just finished yesterday is Christiane Tiez’s Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (Victoria Burnett translator). Barth, probably the most influential 20th Century theologian, best known for his opposition to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, provides an insight into how the church should behave when oppressed. This reading fed into my thoughts that arose from my study of Daniel.
I also read some poetry along with the first half of Richard Lischer’s memoir, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery.
Traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and around the area gave me plenty of time to listen to books on Audible. I began with Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, John Ketchmer, Sailing a Serious Ocean; Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea, and Carl Hiassen, Tourist Season. Having read many of Larson’s books, Isaac’s Storm lived up to my expectation as he captured both the event of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 along with providing insight into those involved in the storm and into how such storms are created. Ketchmer’s book is a first. I enjoyed it and it provided me with a refresher before sailing. Hiassen is another favorite author. I have read or listened to eight of his books. This was his first novel and while not as funny as some of his later ones (Skinny Dip remains my favorite), it’s still good and has humorous moments.
Sightseeing and other activities
I spent two days sailing with a friend in Grand Traverse Bay. We left out of Northport harbor on the Leelanau Peninsula. The first day was rough with 20 knot winds. It was scary when I couldn’t get the main reefed quickly as the lines were dry rotted. Finally, I was able to get it secured and we sailed for a bit that afternoon before enjoying a good meal on the town. On the second day, it was lovely with winds in the 10 to 12 knot range. We sailed out passed Mission Point and up the east side of the bay toward Leelanau Point before coming back to the marina.
While in the UP, I spent one day on Drummond Island. There, I enjoyed a morning hike in Maxton Plains. The plains are an “alvar” landscape, which consist of flat limestone pavement with little soil to provide growth for plants. In the cracks are many different species of grass and flowers along with paper birch and spruce trees. Next time I visit here, I need to bring a bicycle so I can explore more of the plains. After lunch and a visit to the island’s museum, I enjoyed a shorter but refreshing walk under the beech trees of Clyde and Martha Williams Nature Preserve. To reach to Drummond Island, I took the ferry which was just a block from where I was staying.
I also took another trip to Whitefish Point, a place that many know about from Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her. -Gordon Lightfoot
Leaving the UP, I visited friends from Skidaway on Mullet Lake, then old friends in Grand Rapids and Hastings. There’s never enough time to see everyone.
A poem I wrote in the UP
The freighter rides low in the water its screws pushing 70,000 tons of ore southbound toward Gary or Cleveland.
Behind the stern trail angry ripples of water, a turmoil of whirlpools and danger for small boats that cut behind too close.
There are people like the freighter, those who churn the air and leave a path of emotional distraction. Like the ship, they’re best given a wide berth.
I am spending the next two weeks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’m staying in DeTour, which is at the far eastern end of the UP’s mainland. It’s where you catch the ferry from Drummond Island. I have a wonderful view of the St. Mary’s River, where the freighters make their way from the lower lakes up to the locks at Sault St. Marie (the Soo Locks). During this time, I will be reading books, maybe doing some writing, some hiking and spending a few days with a friend on his sailboat. I will also preach two Sundays at DeTour Union Presbyterian Church (in exchange for staying in their manse, the church is seasonal and brings in ministers to preach in exchange for a week in a very comfortable home).
Also, I have very limited internet, so don’t expect to see me too much on the WWW for the next two weeks. But I’ll be back in August.
Driving up, I took US 23, which runs around Saginaw Bay and the shoreline of Lake Huron, through the towns of Tawas City, Alpena, Roger City, and Cheboygan. Even though I lived in Michigan for over a decade, this was the first time to take this drive or to be beside Lake Huron. I have driven MI 22 (which runs from the Leelanau Peninsula down the west side of Michigan) many times (and I highly recommend that drive). But this time, taking US 23, I was in for a new treat.
I spent Wednesday night in Standish, heading out in a new direction on Thursday morning. Sadly, it rained most of the way, but by late morning, it had stopped. So I stopped and spent an hour or two exploring the 40 mile lighthouse.
One of the hardest things for a pastor is to say goodbye as someone moves away. A few years ago, I started writing blessings for those moving away. This past Sunday at Bluemont, we said goodbye to Charles and Diane. Here’s my blessing and a photo of the three of us. Bluemont is currently meeting outdoors so this was done under our picnic shelter.
A Blessing for Charles and Diane Sullivan
For the past twelve years, you have lived on the mountain, bringing joy to your neighbors and to our little rock church. Charles played Santa at Christmas while Diane faithfully attended the Women’s Bible Study and, with her sister Bev, began “Hanging of the Greens.”
You’ve enjoyed the seasons, the warm summer days, the cool fall ablaze in color, the winters with whisps of smoke from chimneys indicating a warm home, and the rebirth in the spring, when the birds fill their air with their songs and dogwoods line the Parkway.
But like the seasons, our lives and our needs change, and health reasons call you back to the flatlands, to be closer to your children.
So go forth with our blessings, trusting in God as you enter this new season. Continue to “have a ball” and to be “the life of the party.”
And when the weather is good, and you have a few hours to spare, we’d love to have you drop in, we’re not that far away.
Until then, go with God whose unbounded love connects us in this life and the one to come.
Barry Lopez, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 1999), 273 pages.
This is a wonderful collection of essays. I listened to an abridged edition as well as read the essays. The Audible version of the book was wonderful because the late Lopez read his work.
The collection (in the book and on audible) begins with a memoir essay titled “A Voice.” In this wonderful piece, Barry tells the story of his young life, from his early years in New York, to moving and living much of his school years in California, and then back to New York for a few years before he headed off to Notre Dame. During this time, Barry experienced the world (often through his mother’s husbands and boyfriends). He even gets a first-hand view (although a somewhat skewed view) of what the writing life is about as he meets John Steinbeck at a summer camp. Steinbeck’s boys were at the same camp. I came away with the appreciation that Lopez never lost his childhood curiosity and these early experiences helped him develop a voice that has made him a beloved storyteller. This is the second book I’ve read of Lopez. Many years ago, I read River Notes.
One of the unifying themes running through these essays is the journey. While many of the essays highlight travels to faraway places (Hokkaido, the Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos), others focus on the journey itself. In “Flight,” he jets around as a passenger on air freight planes while collecting information for a story. One day in Asia, the next Europe or South Africa, and then he’s back in the States. The whirlwind of travel informs the reader about modern commerce, but we also see how Lopez was intensely interested in everything, from walking the streets of Seoul in the early morning hours to learning from the pilots.
The essay “Apologia,” focuses on bits of travel around the United States as he stops to remove dead animals from the highway. This is not just a good deed as he has interest in each of the animals.
In “Speed,” he drives his brother’s Corvette from Chicago to the Amish Country of Northern Indiana, taking a friend who is scouting out locations to film a documentary. But the shooting location is a side-story. The main story centers on driving this muscle car on rural backroads. I found it intriguing that one known as an environmental writer would enjoy speeding in a Corvette, but then remembered stories of Edward Abbey tossing beer cans out of the window of this truck.
The essay, “Murder” finds Lopez driving from Sante Fe to a summer job in Wyoming. In Moab, Utah, he meets a woman who asks him to kill her husband. He quickly flees, racing through the sagebrush of the America West.
Another common theme About This Life are the skills displayed by others. Whether it is the building and flying of airplanes in “Flight,” or the firing of pottery in a dragon kiln in “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire,” or the gracious naturalist author in Hokkaido, Lopez appreciates talent. He also is constantly aware of his natural setting, whether it’s hearing the occasional “staccato cry of a pileated woodpecker” or the change in the air in the summer of ’76 in New York. As the nation celebrated the bicentennial, his mother was dying. Lopez always catches the details.
“The American Geographies” was my favorite essay in the collection. Part incitement of our lack of knowledge of geographies, Lopez acknowledges the “local nature” of geography. Few people have the time or opportunity to full appreciate the diversity of America’s landscape. He invites us to be more intimate with our surroundings, knowing the geology and the natural world from firsthand experience.
Now I want to pull River Notes off the bookcase and reread it along with other books by Lopez.
Last week, I wrote about my last day in Korea. This week, I’m resurrecting another story about that wonderful trip. I had taken a bus from Seoul to Wonju early on Sunday morning. Seung Hwan met me at the bus station. I preached to his congregation at the medical college in Wonju, then we spent the afternoon with a number of clergy in the area. One, I remember, was much older than us and had fled from the north before the Korean War. That evening I stayed in a retreat center east of Wonju.
Monday morning, 4 AM
The sounds of the bell tolling down off the mountainside wake me. I turn on my flashlight. It’s 4 A.M. For a few moments, I lay on my back, the warmth of the floor soothing my body. Seung Hwan had told me the floor would stay warm throughout the night. I had my doubts, but it’s still warm even though when I sit up, the air above me is quite chilly. The caretaker had built a small fire with just a half dozen pieces of split wood in the hearth under the flooring late yesterday afternoon. And now, 12 hours later, long after the coals have died out, the floor retains the heat.
I pull on socks and my pants and thrown on a coat. Stepping out of the sleeping room, I slide on my boots in the bathroom. I don’t lace them up. While I don’t plan to be gone long, I want to be outdoors. The air is cold. My breath, when I exhale, appears as smoke. I walk over to a ledge in front the lodge, hoping my movement will ward off the chill. In the distance I hear a train making its way through the valley. Wonju lies to the west, still sleeping. The sky is clear, the rain and snow of the day before has moved out.
Orion stands, perched high above Wonju, just above the western horizon. I make out several other winter constellations setting in the west before I turn and look toward where the sound from where the bell tolled. The mountain is dark; it’s a couple of hours to dawn. I imagine the priest at the temple, in the cold darkness of morning, getting up daily for their prayers. I, on the other hand, am ready to get back in my warm bed. Sleeping on the floor has never been this good. My bed is on the floor, on top of a rice matt and between two thick quilts. I crawl in. It’s still warm. Immediately, I fall back asleep, only to awake when the sun pierces through a small window.
In Wonju, Korea
I am on a two-week trip through South Korea. Yesterday, I had preached in Seung Hwan’s church at the Medical College.
He’d arranged for me to stay in this retreat lodge located just out of town, up in the foothills of the mountains. He’d given me the option of staying in a western hotel or traditional style lodging. I chose the traditional.
There are only a few others staying here, and none of them seems to speak English. We’re each assigned our own quarters consisting of a small bathroom with a toilet and sink attached a raised sleeping room. There are showers in the main lodge. There are no beds. The raised room has low ceilings, barely six feet high. The walls are mud. The floor is also mud with, I presume, slate or some kind of rock underneath. In the front of each sleeping chamber is a hearth. The fire in this hearth, which runs under the sleeping room, heats the floor. Once warm, the floor maintains its heat through the night.
Catching a bit of the Superbowl
Seung Hwan arrives shortly after daybreak. We have breakfast. It’s Monday morning and as we eat, we catch a bit of the Superbowl being played back in the States. St. Louis is playing Tennessee at the Georgia Dome. I try to explain the game to him. When it is over, we head out. We have a long climb ahead in Ch’iaksan National Park. We drive to the south end of the park, leave the car behind. Our packs contain heavy coats and crampons.
We begin our climb on a dirt two track road. While the cities have modernized, rural Korea doesn’t appear to have changed much in centuries. We pass several small farms. Chickens run loose and dogs are penned behind the homes. After a few kilometers, the dirt road ends. We begin climbing a small path up into the mountains. The climb is steep, and we often have to stop and catch our breaths. Soon, the dirt and mud give way to packed snow and ice. We strap crampons onto our boots and continue climbing. It’s a long way up. Occasionally we hear trains making their way through the valley. There is a circle tunnel just south of us where the train makes a loop as it climbs into the mountains. There are few birds, but its winter. Although these are the Magpie Crags, I don’t see any magpies.
We take a break and eat lunch at a spring located below Sangwona Temple. Seung Hwan explains that pilgrims stopped here to bath and purify themselves before going to the temple to pray. The water is cold and refreshing. The wind comes up. We both pull on heavy coats, keeping in them on for the final climb.
The temple appears to be deserted, although it’s well-kept. We see only one monk, walking away. The most notable feature of the grounds is the bell. Cast out of bronze, it’s as tall as me and mounted on the side of a ledge that looks out to the South. A large log, suspended from two chains, is used to strike the bell. The monks have taken precautions and have padlocked the bell so that tourist like us won’t ring it at an inappropriate time. I ask Seung Hwan if this is the bell I heard in the morning. “Probably not,” he said. “There are many temples in these mountains.” The bell I heard most likely was from the Ipsoksa Temple, located on the flanks of Mount Pinobong.
We take our shoes off and go inside the temple area. Several beautifully cast statues of Buddha are on display. Although we’re both Presbyterian, we are respectful and reverent. There is a holy aura about the place. I could stay here a long time, but we don’t want to be caught out in the dark.. Going down is easy. The spikes on our boots hold our feet on the icy spots. As we walk, I ask Seung Hwan about the temple and its bell. This is rugged country; it took a Herculean effort to build such a temple. I can’t imagine hauling the statues and wonderful bell up this incline.
The Legend of the Magpies
Seung Hwan tells me the temple was built late in the Shilla Dynasty, at a time when Confucianism was taking root in Korea. Soon thereafter, under the Yi Dynasty, Buddhism was seen as an enemy of the people. Many of the temples were closed due to the lack of priests. Then he tells me a story.
Once Confucianism became entrenched in Korea, anyone desiring in a government position had to take a national exam at the capital. One day, a man passed along the mountains in which we’d been climbing, heading to take the exam. A kind man, as he made his through the valley in the shadow of the mountain we’d been climbing, he heard a bird cry for help. Looking around, he saw a snake squeezing the bird that would soon be its dinner. Feeling compassion for the bird, the man shot an arrow into the snake, killing it but freeing the bird.
Shortly afterwards, as it was getting late, the man came to a home. He knocked on the door and a beautiful woman answered. He asked for lodging and she agreed. She even prepared him a wonderful dinner. But after dinner, the woman turned into a snake and wrapped herself around the man, telling him that he’d killed her husband and now she was going to do the same to him. He begged for his life and the snake, playing with the man, said that if the bell rings three times before dawn, he’ll be spared. Otherwise, she’ll kill him in the morning.
This was a cruel reprieve. Both the snake and the man knew there were no monks living in the mountains to ring the bell. So, the man spent the night embraced by the snake, waiting for a fateful sunrise. But right before dawn, the man and the snake were surprised to hear the bell ring. The first time, it was very loud. Then it rang a second time, a bit weaker. Then they heard a very weak third ring.
The snake kept her word and allowed the man to go free. Instead of heading on the capital, he decided to climb the mountain and to see who it was that rang the bell. Sure enough, the temple was empty. But there under the bell was the bird that he’d saved the day before, its beak shattered from having flown into the bell three times. To this day, the bell is known as the “Compassion Bell.”
Another restful night
That night, back at the retreat house, a light breeze jingles the wind chimes along the porch. Tired and sore after climbing in the mountains, I immediately fall asleep upon the warm floor. Again, I wake at 4 AM with the toll of the bell. It’s more muffled than the morning before. I’m surprised I’m not sore from the climb. This sleeping arrangement is magical. And again, as with the morning before, I get up and go outside. A light snow falls, dusting the ground.
In early 2000, I spent a two weeks in Korea, preaching and visiting friends and my parents (my father’s company had assigned him to a Korean factory making power plants near Pusan). I preached at a couple of churches, one of which had nearly 2000 in attendance at one service, which is the largest congregation to which I’ve preached. This tells of my last day in the country, as I took the train up the Korean peninsula to Seoul and then caught a plane for San Francisco.
Morning train to Seoul
It’s still dark when I board the morning express in Masan, heading toward Seoul. This far south, in this port and industrial city, the weather is chilly and wet but not really cold. I find my seat, stow my two bags overhead (a backpack and a suit bag) and push my jacket up against the window as a pillow. A pretty Korean woman sits next to me. She looks to be in her mid-20s and wears a dress and heels. We smile but when I speak, she shakes her head and says, “No English.”
Shortly afterwards, a whistle blows. The train jerks and my journey begins. I lay my jacket against the window, and my head upon it, alternating my time between looking and reading a book on Korean history and culture. Outside, fog mysteriously shrouds the streets lights.
Dark clouds hid the sunrise; all is gray. As we rush north toward Taegu City, we pass through many rural villages that seem the anti-thesis of Korea’s modern cities. Instead of concrete high-rise apartments, rural homes appear to have changed little over the past century. Most have small courtyards, protected by a high concrete walls. The house sits inside the courtyard, built out from the side of one of the walls. Smoke puffs from the clay pipes above these humble adobes. They use either coal, charcoal or wood fires to heat and to cook. All around the villages are fields for rice or vegetables, onions and cabbage and peppers. At Taegu, the woman next to me gets off.
After pulling out of Taegu, the train heads in a northwestwardly direction to Taejon City. This is mountainous country, but the hills are old and worn, like the Appalachians, not rugged and young like the Rockies. With the trees bare of leaves, I can make out the large nests of magpies.
Dotting the hills in the rural areas are many mounts representing burial sites. They place coffins on the ground. Stones and dirt are piled up around it. The government banned this practice because it takes up too much land in a country where land is precious. However, I’m told some people still bury their dead in this manner. Only today, they do it at night, in order not to attract attention.
Here, snow covers the ground. The roads are icy. At a crossing, just beyond the railroad gate, catch a glimpse of two cars in the ditch and a wrecker working to pull one back onto the highway. Along this section, we pass Yongdong. Near here, during a hasty retreat during the Korean War, scared American soldiers opened fire on civilians, killing many, in a tragedy of the war. Although I am not sure exactly where the site is at, I think about as it’s been in the news recently.
From Taejon, the train races north toward Seoul, traveling through a highly populated area that’s mostly industrial and suburban. High-rise apartments dot the landscape and there are many factories. The train pulls into the station at Seoul a few minutes early. I retrieve my bags and head up an escalator to the main station, worried how I’ll be able to find my ride with so many people. There, at the top of the escalator, I’m pleasantly surprised to see Chanrank and Chang waiting for me. They suggest we stop and have lunch at a café across from the college where Chanrank teaches.
Chop Head Hill
After lunch, as we have four hours before I need to be at the airport; Chang asks if I still want to visit Chop Head Hill. When I had arrived in Korea two weeks early, I had asked Chanrank and her husband about this place. I immediately worried that I had insulted them, but her husband told me more about the place. As he was required to be at the university where he taught this day, Chang came along to take us there. Yes,” I said. I would like an to visit the site.
The three of us seemed to be an odd pair to tour this site scared to Korean Catholics. Like me, Chanrak is Presbyterian. Chang is Buddhist. We wind through the narrow streets north of the Han River in Chang’s car till we finally arrive at the the infamous bluff overlooking the river.
For years, this hill was the site for executions, where the heads of the condemned rolled down into the river. One of the artifacts is a round stone, looking somewhat like a millstone, which was used in the beheadings. The condemned had a rope tied around his or her necks. The rope ran through the hole in the middle of the stone. One of the executors would pull the head of the condemn through the stone while the other used an ax to remove the head from the body.
In the middle of the 1860s, the French tried to gain a foothold in Korea. Sending a gunboat up the Han River, they shelled Seoul. The emperor, seeking a way to cleanse his country of the foreign devils, ask his shaman what to do. They suggested the execution of all Christians in Korea.
Catholic massacre in 1866
In 1866, the Korean emperor ordered the extermination of Korean Christians. At the time, almost all Korean Christians were Catholics. Priest from China converted most of these Christians. Members of churches were bound in chains and dragged across the nation to this place, where they were executed by beheading.
After a decade of tension, in the late 1870s, the French and Korea signed a treaty that guaranteed religious freedom for Korean citizens. In the aftermath of this treaty, Protestants missionaries—especially Presbyterians and Methodist—flooded into the country. In all of Asia, only the Philippines have more Christians than Korea. About 40% of the population claim to be Christian, half of which are Presbyterian. Another 40% of the population is Buddhist. On the hundred anniversary of the martyrdoms, the Catholic Church built a shrine in the honor of the martyrs. Known today as Chou Du San Martyrs’ Shrine or it’s English equivalent, “Chop Head Hill.”
Yongdo Full Gospel Church
As we still had two hours before we had to be at the airport, we swung by the Yongdo Full Gospel Church. An independent Pentecostal Church with roots in the Assembly of God, they claim to be the largest congregation in the world with 750,000 members. We quickly tour the church. Chang, a Buddhist, seems especially proud of the idea that his country has the world largest church. The sanctuary looks a look like a basketball area and seats nearly 20,000. Although large, I’m left to wonder where everyone worships. Even with their five worship services on Sunday, they would only be able to have 20% of their members member’s present.
After visiting the church, we rush to the airport. After checking bags, we have time for a cup of tea before I have to go through security. I shake Chang’s hand and hug Chanrank, then head through security. In an hour, I’m flying east and sleeping the night away on a Singapore Air flight to San Francisco.
A high bluff along the western bank of the Lumber River just south of US 74, Pea Ridge is a lovely spot. We arrive early enough to enjoy it. For a wilderness site that is only accessible to the public from the water, this is near perfection. There are a few benches, a picnic table and a trash can and grass! Across the river stands several huge cypresses, their needles turning brown. Around us are a variety of trees. The bank of the river is lined with cypress and water birch. The site itself features sweet gum, maple, sycamore, pines and holly. I place my hammock between trees and find a mossy place to set up my tent so that I have a good view of the river. After setting up camp, I lie in my hammock resting and reading for an hour, then go for a swim before dinner.
This is our second night on the river. We’ve covered 14 or so miles after launching at Matthew Bluff bridge late yesterday morning. The first day was supposed to be easy for we knew it was going to take time to shuttle vehicles. Not wanting to leave a vehicle at a bridge for two days, Joe Washburn, the pastor of First Presbyterian in Whiteville agreed to help us with the shuttle. After we got everything ready and loaded in our boats, we slid them down the muddy bank into the river. My dad has his boat in the water first but falls into the water as he tries to enter his boat. The river drops off quickly. After fishing out his equipment and restowing it, we were soon on the way. The river around the Matthew Bluff bridge was trashed with beer and soda cans and household waste, as some people treat the area as a dump. Thankfully, after a couple turns, the river becomes more natural. We’d been warned when we presented the ranger with our float plans that the river had not been cleared of blow-down trees since Hurricane Florence. That was a year ago. Sadly, they’d just finished clearing the entire 100-mile waterway from on Drowning Creek and the Lumber River of down trees from Hurricane Matthew which occurred in 2016 a month before Florence struck. He told us to be aware that there would be some blow downs above Boardman (Highway 74). He was right. About a mile into our trip, we came across the first, a huge old oak that laid across the river. The water was deep and I pulled my kayak parallel to the log, slid out of the boat and straddled the log (as if I was riding a Clydesdale, pulled my boat over the log and tied it off and then helped my father get his boat across. Thankfully, there were no problems and we were soon on our way.
After crossing the Willouby Bridge, four or so miles down the river, we came to another blowdown where we had to get out and cut a path for our boats to make it through the branches of the down tree. Our first campsite, Buck Landing, was a mile or so south of the Willouby Bridge, on the east side. I kept wondering when the site was going to show up, as I saw few pine, trees that indicate high ground. This area was swampy and populated with cypress, tupelo, river birch and a few bay trees. But soon after wondering where the pines were, they appeared and right afterwards was the campsite.
Like Pea Ridge, Buck Landing was also a wilderness/canoe-in site but with easier access by locals as the one trash can “over-runneth” with beer cans. I spent a good deal of time emptying the trash and crushing the beer cans so that they were all able to be contained within the provided can. Although I may be mistaken, I was pretty sure the no one had paddled the river with that many cases of beer. This site also had a small pavilion, which wasn’t needed due to the clear skies, but the supports made a good place to sling my hammock. As the site was on the eastern side of the river, we saw a nice sunset through the hardwood swamp on the other side. Shortly thereafter, a thin crescent of the new moon was visible. After a dinner of some MREs that my father had brought along, we both decided to avoid the mosquito battle and headed off to bed, listening to the owls hoot and the buzz of insects.
The next morning, I’m a little panicked. When I pulled out my glucose test meter (I am a diabetic) to check my blood sugar level, it wasn’t working. I wasn’t bothered too much until I made my way over to my boat and pulled out the small dry bag I always carry with me whether kayaking or sailing, in which I keep a backup meter. The battery was dead. As they are different kind of meters, I can’t change the battery from one to the other. I wasn’t sure what to do, but my father was more concerned than me as he’s never dealt with diabetes. I told him I thought I would be okay and hopefully I could get a new meter when we crossed US 74 at Boardman, later in the morning.
After breakfast of coffee, an orange, and oatmeal, we shoved off a little after 9 AM. It was to be a difficult morning. It takes two hours to cover just a few miles as we spend almost as much time in the water as in the boat as we pulled over, under, through, and around fallen trees. When we weren’t pulling ourselves through down trees, we enjoyed watching kingfishers dart up and down the river, and great blue herons led us downriver when we interrupt their hunting. I even saw a red tail hawk. Throughout the morning, I keep snacking, not wanting my blood sugar to drop. After two hours of exhausting work, we finally get to where the river opens up more. Then, maybe a mile from the bridge, we passed a fisherman who’d pushed a jon boat up the river with a small battery powered motor. Only then did we know we were done with blowdowns.
At the wildlife boat ramp at US 74, I knew better than walking into the village of Boardman. It used to be a large town, back in the early 1900s when the area was heavily lumbered,but the only business left today is a gas station. I tried calling local pharmacies in Fairmont and Chadbourn, hoping to find one that delivered. Unfortunately, as it was now noon, all their delivery drivers had gone out to make their daily runs. They laughed when I asked about Uber or Lyft. But, while I was waiting, with my meter out in the sun, it began working again, which made me pretty sure it was a problem with humidity. Being able to see that my blood sugar was in a good range, we continued paddling another mile to Pea Ridge campsite.
That night, we built a fire and talk. For some reason, my dad asked me about which of his guns I want him to leave me. While I have guns (all of which are in need of being oiled because they haven’t been shot in decades), I’m not a gun collector. All my guns stay locked up in a gun safe. But I told him I’d take the 30-30 Winchester lever action in case I move back out west. He suggests instead taking a higher powered gun, but I told him the Winchester was enough. Then he asks about shotguns and I was surprised to learn that he has a 20 gauge double barrel coachman (short barrel gun that those who rode “shotgun” on stagecoaches carried). What are you doing with that? I ask. “It’s your moms.” “What?” Then I learn the story. They were visiting my great aunt who, after my father’s uncle had died. She lived by herself out in the country. My mother asked if she wasn’t scared living out there. She said no, and showed my mother the gun. My mom, who I am sure was trying to be nice or trying to make a joke, said “maybe that’s what I need.” Well, lets just say, “I don’t think her next birthday went over well.”
After crawling into bed, I have a great view of Cassiopeia, Pegasus, and Andromeda, rising over eastern bank of the river. I fall quickly asleep and wake up once before morning. Taurus is overhead and Orion is rising just behind him. It must be well after midnight, but I don’t check the time and when I wake up again, it’s dawn. I get up, write a bit, then prepare coffee and water for oatmeal.
We’re on the river at 9 AM. It’d been cleared from here on down to our takeout point at the State Park at Queen Anne’s Landing. It was an easy 9 ½ miles. Down trees are not a problem, but at one place there’s a sandbar that runs across the river and we end up getting out of our boats and pulling them across it. After a lazy float, we arrive at the landing a little after noon.
The Lumber River is located in Southeastern North Carolina. The river starts north of Laurinburg, as Drowning Creek and wanders 115 miles as it passes the city of Lumberton and the town of Fair Bluff on its way to merge with the Pee Dee RIver a few miles into South Carolina. The state of North Carolina maintains a linear park along the river from the 15-501 bridge to Fair Bluff. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew dropped so much water into the river basin that much of Lumberton and Fair Bluff were below water. I used to work this area back in the early 80s for the Boy Scouts of America. At the time, Fair Bluff was a delightful small town. Today, the town is mostly deserted. To learn more about the river, check out the Lumber River State Park website.
It’s been a while since I had a post on my activities, so I decided I’d do a full moon to full moon post. The August full moon occured on the 15th, and I was at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky. It was a clear night and those who came out to the falls an hour or so after the moonrise, were treated with seeing a “moonbow.” It’s just like a rainbow, except it is more whitish, appearing a little like a ghost of a rainbow. The moonbow occurs in the spray from the falls, which also creates a lovely rainbow in daytime, as you can see from the two photos I’ve posted.
From one of the historical markers around the site, I learned that the Cumberland River was named by Dr. Walker, an early explorer in the area. According to him, the river was the crookedest he’d seen, so he named it after the Duke of Cumberland because it reminded the explorer of the Duke.
Leaving Cumberland Falls, we headed toward Cumberland Gap. It was about lunch time when we hit Corbin and we decided to have lunch at Colonel Sander’s place. The original restaurant and hotel was torn down, but they rebuilt a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the site many years ago. In addition to the children and biscuits, three was a small museum showing how it was back in the 30’s. It’s also a major stop on the old Nashville and Louisville Railroad, so I had time to watch a few trains.
At Cumberland Gap, we rode the bike/horse part of the Wilderness Road. We needed Daniel Boone, for it was rough with several down trees. Also, after a long downhill run, we crossed a small bridge and at the other end, a horse had relieved himself. It took some maneuvering to miss that pile of crap! We enjoyed the delightful town of Cumberland Gap which has an interesting bicycle museum and several good coffee shops/restaurants. I had my first beet burger at the Pineapple Tea Room and Coffee Ship. It was good! Camping, we also ate good as we picked up in a rural grocery store some rib-eyes to grill. They were local and grass fed and it was some of the best meat I’ve had in the eastern part of the country where all the meat tends to be corn-fattened.
After a couple of nights at Cumberland Gap, we headed over to Abingdon and Damascus for the purpose of riding the Virginia Creeper trail. We found a wonderful camping spot (with a cucumber tree, which I had to look up to identify). I enjoyed being back in this country, as it’s been well over thirty years since I came through here while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
The Virginia Creeper is a neat trail that follows an old railroad bed from Abingdon to Whitetop, Virginia, and on to Todd NC. The train stopped running in the mid-70s, and in the 80s, it was converted to a bike trail. Where were lots of people on the trail. You can catch a shuttle from Damascus to the top of Whitetop, which we did. There were several shuttles running every hour. Talking to a driver, I learned that during the fall color season, there are as many as a dozen vans an hour coming up to the top! It was a nice and easy ride. I stopped and walked a bit on the Appalachian Trail for old time sake (but the AT has been relocated here since I hiked this area, so I wasn’t exactly walking in my old steps.
Leaving the Damascus/Mount Rogers area, we headed over to the New River State Park, where the state of Virginia runs a fifty some mile long linear park along the New River from Galax to Pulaski. We road the trail from from Galax to our site, about 28 miles, which made a nice day. But this trail involved more peddling than the Creeper trail in which you could almost coast the whole way.
The campsites are rather expensive for pit toilets and no showers ($25/night), but we loved our site. It was just steps from the river and we had the place to ourselves. We slept to the sound of water running over rocks (augmented by the sounds of birds, frogs, insects, and the wind). It was a wonderful place to camp. And every evening, I took a swim in the river.
After getting back and having a hurricane threaten, another full moon came around. This time, at home and on a semi-clear evening, I made the best of it by paddling around Pigeon Island (about 6 miles). It was a magical evening starting with incredibly red skies and then the beauty of the moon.
This is another “recycled blog post” from an old blog from my journey from Indonesia to Europe taken during a sabbatical in 2011. I am concentrating on my travel blogs (mostly by train) instead of the others where I was visiting tourist sights. Here I make my way from Malaysia to Thailand.
Question: What is the largest train station ever built that never had train tracks? (answer at the end of my story)
With mixed feelings, I leave Penang behind. I have enjoyed my time here. After a couple of weeks of constant movement around Indonesia and Malaysia, it was nice to slow down for several days. The Hutton Lodge provided excellent accommodations and having Mahen, a blogger friend who lives in Georgetown, Penang, as a guide was a special treat.
Before leaving Georgetown, I spend the morning at Mahen’s clinic where I was able to see first-hand the work they do with children and young adults with cerebral palsy. I got to play with the children and watch as they work to teach a trade to the older children.
By late morning, it was time to head to the ferry. The train was scheduled for 2:20 PM, but the woman who sold me the ticket suggested I be on the ferry to cross the bay by noon. As it turned out, there was only a few minute wait for the ferry and then crossing took only 30 minutes. Once on the other side, I walked by the train station and made sure I knew where I needed to be at, then crossed the tracks and found a place for lunch. There, I talked to one of the few Americans I’d seen on the trip, a recent MBA graduate from Harvard who was traveling in Southeast Asia for a month. We chatted as we at, then we explored some old train equipment, including two old steam trains, in a park by the tracks. Coming back to the train station at 2 PM, a woman working for the Malaysian tourism asks me a bunch of questions about their tourist advertisements and what I liked about Malaysia.
I’m shocked, when the “International” begins to load, that there are only had two cars, both second class sleepers. Even with just two cars, the train is less than half full. I’m alone in my seats, which turns into two single beds at night, with a canvas covering that provides some privacy. Sitting across the aisle as we wait to pull out of the station are two women, sisters, from Penang who were heading north for a wedding. One of them now lives in Hong Kong. We begin talking, but then the conductor informs them they are in the wrong seats and makes them move into the other car. Then, an older Indian couple boarded the train and sat in their compartment. In the seats behind me, an Australian man sits alone and we strike up a conversation.
For much of the afternoon, as we head toward the Thai border, Malaysia work on upgrading their rail system (with plans that the north/south line to be fully double-tracked and electrified) is evident. New trestles are being built, tracks laid and electrical lines strung. These tracks are also a lot smoother than those tracks on Malaysia’s “Jungle Train.”
At the Thai border, we have to leave the train to clear customs. The cars continue on, but the rather plain looking Malaysian engine is replaced with a colorful Thai engine. The staff also changes. Instead of the Malay staff, we now have Thai attendants. All of them wear fancy uniforms with enough stars to create a small galaxy. A car to prepare food is also added. We check out of Malaysia, go through a gate and have our passports stamped for Thailand. The train moves forward a hundred feet or so, into Thailand, where we re-board. As we step into the car, a Thai attendant greets us with cart selling bottles of Singha beer. As a Muslim country, there had been no beer on trains in Malaysia. But now we’re in Thailand, beer is readily available.
After leaving the border, I join Allen, the man from Australia, and two Japanese men who are sitting across the aisle from Allen. We take turns buying large bottles of beer and pouring them into glasses, serving each other. The Japanese speak only broken English, but we are able to communicate. When they take orders for dinner, we all have pork, which was unavailable in Malaysia, it being a Muslim country. I have pork with noodles with oyster sauce, which was delicious.
Allen and I talk through much of the evening. An Australian, he retired to Tasmania. Most of his life was spent in the military. He’d joined the British army as soon as he was eligible (his mother signed for him at 16). He was originally from Great Britain, just south of Scotland. After seeing action in Yemen and in Malaysia in the mid-1960s, he transferred to the Australian army where he spent most of his military career. He even spent a year in the United States, in the late 60s, training American Non-Commissioned Officers for jungle warfare. He served three tours in Vietnam as well as in Malaysia (there was an undeclared war between Malaysia and Indonesia on Borneo in the 60s and 70s). He’s well-read and we discussed books (we’d read many of the same), theology, government and health care, world politics, our families and the weather (it was a 23 hour train ride). Allen takes off for a few months every winter (remember, he lives in the southern hemisphere) and travels in Southeast Asia.
Allen has a lot to say about Vietnam and his experiences there. He’s critical of American forces (noting that our military is more disciplined now than then). Then, he confessed that most Australians in Vietnam didn’t like working with American units. The Australian units had jungle warfare experiences in Malaysia, and were more prepared for Vietnam. He told of once incident on his last tour in 1971. His squad had been in an ambush position for a day, waiting. He said that in the jungle it was hard to hear and to see very far and that his troops knew to wait till an enemy force was all in the killing zone (set up between two machine guns, before opening fire. If the enemy unit was too large (more than 18 men), they’d let it pass, but if smaller, they’d attack. A unit came into their trap, talking loudly. In the jungle, they couldn’t make out the words or even the language. It was assumed, because of where they were at, it was a Vietcong (VC) unit. He was also critical of the VC, saying they were no more disciplined than American soldiers. As the leader, it was his job to detonate the claymore mines as a signal for everyone to open fire. But seconds before he blew the mines, one of his machine gunners yelled, “Hold the fucking fire.” He was shocked, but the machine gunner was in position to have a good look of the last soldiers in the unit, a 6 ½ foot tall African-American. He could have been basketball player, as his head stuck up over the grass. The machine gunner realized this wasn’t a VC unit at all, and his yell saved 13 American lives.
As bad as Vietnam was, he said it didn’t compare to his short stint in Yemen with the British army early in his career. His time there makes him feel for the soldiers in Afghanistan, who are fighting a determined enemy who believes they’re on God’s side.
At about ten o’clock, the train attendant lowers our beds. We all head off to sleep. Across from me, the Indian couple who, especially for their age, are having a good time. The canvas covers over the sleeping areas don’t dampen the sound. Sometime in the night. after the Indian couple quiet down, , I feel the train bumping around and in the morning, there are no longer just two passenger cars, but a dozen or so. The morning also brings a different view as the mosques and minarets of Malaysia have been replaced with colorful Buddhist temples and chimneys for crematoriums of Thailand. The tracks are not as smooth as they were in Malaysia, showing their age as we pass over them.
I join Allen and the two Japanese for breakfast. For 100 baht, I get some fruit, coffee, juice and a ham sandwich. While we eat, we whisper about what must have been going on in the Indian couple’s compartment. Everyone heard them. No one is sure of their age, but we all are impressed. As we approach Bangkok, the stations become closer together and towns are larger. We pass over canal after canal, making our way on toward the city’s center, pulling into the station just a few minutes late.
At Hau Lampong, the Bangkok main train station, I say our goodbyes to my Japanese friends and Allen and I depart ways. Then I realize I am not sure where I’m going and can’t believe that I didn’t write down directions to Sam’s Lodge, where I have reservations. I find an internet café and log into my gmail account to get the directions—which are rather easy: just find the subway, go four stops and get off at Sukhumvit, leave the subway at exit three, walk to the corner and take a left… I stop to eat lunch and am at the hotel by 2 PM, where I drop my luggage off and set out to explore around Bangkok.
Answer: The majestic Georgetown train station on the island of Penang never had a train make it’s way to the station. The trains always ran through Butterworth, on the Malaysian mainland. But the British did a wonderful job in designing this building on the Georgetown waterfront:
This post is from an older blog of mine from when I was on a Sabbatical and traveled overland trip from Southeast Asia to Europe. As much as possible, I traveled by trains.
We pull out of Singapore’s Tangong Pager Railway Station right on time, promptly at 4:30 AM. As we board the train, a Malaysian official stamps our passports. The train slowly moves through the dark city that’s not yet ready to come to life, the coaches swaying back and forth on the tracks. In two more weeks, this train will cease to exist. Everything is dark. I think back to the day before when I visited the station to see it in daylight. It’s a grand station, like many built in the early 20th Century. It was still young and in its prime when the Japanese invaded. Yesterday, I spoke with an old Chinese man who had come to see the station one more time, while the trains were still running. He told me about being an older child when the Japanese forced all the Chinese into the station and several other places around the city. Then soldiers came and randomly selected people and forced them to march to the beach, where they were shot and left for the tides to claim.
I arrived by cab at the station around 3:30 A.M. It was still dark, but the front door was open. The great hall was dark, but people had already started to gather, so I found a seat on one of the wood benches and waited, trying to catch a bit more sleep. At 4 A.M. the lights come on and I notice the large murals of rural Malaya life that lines the walls. All this was build when Malaya was a British colony and Singapore was just another city. But as the British pulled out, Singapore established itself as a separate country. I buy a water bottle and some snacks from a vendor and then, once the gates to the tracks are open, head over and join the line. The Malaysian official by the gate wastes no time checking documents and asks no questions as he stamps our passports. We’re sent out into the humid heat of early morning. I walk down the platform, under the hanging railroad clock that no longer works, to the five waiting coaches. These cars are attached to a power car that’s billowing diesel fumes as it provides electricity and air conditioning for the coaches. As of yet, there are no locomotives. I hop aboard, seeking relief from the heat, and find my seat. A few minutes later, we’re jarred as the locomotive is coupled to the train. Shortly afterwards, we leave and weave our way through the city.
The lights are dim and I’m about to nod off, when we abruptly stop and the lights come on. We’re told to get off. It’s only been twenty minutes or so since we started and I’d forgotten about this stop. We’re at Woodlands, on the far side of the island at the causeway and we have to go through immigration. Starting July 1, 2011, this is where the train will begin as the tracks through Singapore will be removed and the land used for development. We’re told we can leave our luggage behind (I still take my daypack) and shuffle out onto the brightly lighted platform and lineup behind the yellow line waiting to meet with the official. I scan the crowds. There is only one other western couple that I pick out, a Brit and his wife who live in Singapore. They are in the line for Singapore residents. Our entry cards for Singapore are taken and our passports checked and stamped. We then circle back around and re-board. It’s interesting that Malaysia stamped our passports at the Singapore station, before we get to the border, and we’re officially “checked out of Singapore” here.
As soon as we’re onboard, the roar of the diesel is heard as we’re pulled across the causeway. The docks along the shoreline here light up the night air. We move slowly and shortly after reaching the mainland, we stop again, in Johor Bahru, Singapore’s sister city on the mainland. More people board the train.
In preparation for this trip, I had read Colonel Masanobu Tsuji’s account of the Malaya campaign in 1941—42. He was the staff office in charge of operations for the Japanese and after the war wrote an account of the Japanese planning and execution of this invasion in a book that was translated into English in the 1960s. Japan’s Greatest Victory: Britain’s Worst Defeat tells how the Japanese army was able to quickly move down the Malaya peninsula, using cheap Japanese bicycles on the excellent British roads, never allowing the much larger British force time to set up a defense line. When they reached Johor Bahru, the Japanese command set up offices in the Sultan’s Palace, an exposed position, but one that gave them the best view of the vast island that was their objective. From here, they directed their armies in their operations to break through Singapore’s defenses. Britain had felt that they could easily defend the island (just blow up the causeway), but their defenses were mostly on the seaward side. They were caught surprised by a fast moving Japanese army. Only when the Japanese got to this point was Britain able to slow their march, as they turn their big sea-facing guns around and used them to bombard the Japanese positions.
It’s raining as the train pulls out of Johor Bahru. I make myself comfortable, putting a pillow up against my window and fall asleep. I wake up an hour later, at Kluang. A crowd of people are boarding the train and a Malaysian man sits next to me and soon there are a dozen children crowding in around us. The man and his brother are traveling with their families and their kids range from about five to fourteen. The older children collaborate in translation and throughout the trip. Their father moves to another seat, allowing each of the children opportunity to sit a next to me. The older ones practice their English, the younger ones play silly games, always laughing and smiling. I show the pictures of my family. Wishing to have more photos, I pull out my netbook and show them photos on the computer. Other adults in the surrounding seats ahead of me turn around to see and all seem amazed at the photographs of my daughter skiing. Living near the equator, these children can’t imagine snow.
The train makes a long stop at Gemas, where they change engines. It’s just a small town and doesn’t appear on my Southeast Asia map. But it was an important town for the Japanese to capture in the Malaya campaign. The town is a railroad crossroads and securing the town cut Butterworth, Penang and Kula Lampur’s land connection to Singapore. There’s a lot of work going on the tracks here as KLM, the Malaysian Railroad, is building a doubled-track electric line all the way from the Thai border to Gemas. The Northeast Line (which I am riding) will continue to use diesel electric locomotives (I’m told the ones we’re currently using are built in India). The train consists only of coaches. There is no dining car and I’m glad I’d brought snacks along for the only food available to buy is in a cart that gets pushed around once during the trip and consist mostly of water, juice and chips.
Much of this land is filled with large plantations of palm oil or rubber trees. And then there is the jungle, places were the vegetation is so thick that one could easily get lost. When we travel through jungle areas, the greenery is so close that the windows become a psychedelic blur. The Japanese, when they moved down the peninsula in late ’41 and early 42, found that having a smaller force wasn’t necessarily bad as the battlefields were so narrow due to the jungles. Some of the vegetation looks like kudzu, the plant from Asia that has taken over areas of the American South. Old warehouses and buildings no longer in use are covered with the vines. The towns along the tracks are small, mere villages. There is no rice (Malaysian rice is mostly grown on the west side of the peninsula). Roofs here are mostly of rusty tin, which makes sense with Malaysia also being a large producer of the metal.
A little later in the morning, I’m standing by the open door at the end of the car. My seat mate from early in the morning is sitting in the open door, rolling what has to be the skinniest cigarette I’ve seen. He offers me one, but I decline. I’m making use of the open door to snap photographs without having to deal with dirty windows. Another man asks me where I was going and we begin to talk about my trip across Southeast Asia and China and on to Russia and Europe. It turns out that he’s done much of my planned trip by rail, including the trans-Siberian. We talk about trains and he tells me the best are in Iran. I laugh and acknowledge that I’ve heard good things about Iranian trains, but that Americans are not especially welcomed there. We talk, off and on for the rest of the trip, until his stop which was 30 minutes or so before mine. His name is Mahud. When he tells me that Detroit is his favorite place in America, I wonder if I should check his temperature and see if he’s feverish. But he goes on to say that there are many Muslims there. Although he’s not wearing any of the traditional religious garb (like the guys looking a lot like Bin Laden, in white robes and turbans), he’s a devout Muslim with a PhD in Islamic Studies from a Saudi school. We talk about religion and my travels. I also learn that his brother, who teaches Chemistry in KL (as people call Kula Lampur), has a doctorate from Ohio State…
Mahud’s wife is Chinese. I ask which part and he says “Canton.” Surprised, I told him that I thought most of the Chinese Muslims were in the western part of the country. “There are very many Chinese Muslims,“ he assures me, “more than any other country.” I question his statement, having always heard that Indonesia had the most Muslims. He then complains about Indonesia, saying that there, a man can be a Muslim with a Christian wife and a Buddhist son. In Malaysia, the state bans Muslims from converting to other faiths. When I question if the government should enforce one’s religion, he backs down and says only God can change what is in the heart. I agree. He also complains that in Malaysia, only ½ of the people are Muslim (another questionable fact). But when I prod him some, I get the impression he’s talking about those who take their faith seriously, not those who claim to be of the Islamic faith.
My conversation with Mahud isn’t limited to religion even though we do spent a lot of time discussing it. At times, he stops to point out sights along the way. Near Gua Musang, we pass the first of limestone hills that appear so prominently in Asian art. He points to the caves in the humpback hills. At Kemubu, he notes some of the highest points in Malaysia (at least on the mainland). There is a waterfall here that he wants me to see, but unfortunately clouds and haze now blur our view, making it difficult to see anything clearly. After Dabong, he notes that we’re on a part of the track where the sun will come up in the west (the track goes south for a bit here as it navigates the mountains).
Later in the afternoon, rain sets in and by the time the train arrives at Wakaf Bharu, the stop for Kota Bharu, it’s pouring. This city was the first in British Malaya to be attacked by the Japanese early on December 8, 1941. The attack happened only a few hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked, but being on the other side of the International Date Line, it was already December 8th. I get off with most of the remaining passengers that’s left on board. The train will continue on a few kilometers to Tumpat, near the Thailand border. The Jungle Train has been a magical experience. With few Westerners on board (I did get to talk with the two Brits after Mahud and the kids had departed), I’ve been able to make some new friends. Mahud had even given me directions to his house in case I want to stop by. I thanked him, but insisted I wasn’t going to be in East Malaysia long.
This was originally posted in my other blog and written in January 2012, shortly after making this trip.
The air is crisp and Orion has dropped into the western sky as we make our way into the Flagstaff train station. The waiting room is nearly filled with passengers and baggage awaiting the eastbound arrival of the Southwest Chief. It’s 5:15 AM and we’re fifteen minutes before the train is supposed to arrive. I’ve parked the rental car in the city lot across the tracks, placed the keys in the drop box and took a seat on the old wood benches. The train is running fifteen minutes late. Outside one of Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains of containers race through town, on its way to Los Angeles and then to a ship to where ever. A few minutes later another train approaches from the west, heading east, with containers that probably originated somewhere in Asia, most-likely China. At 5:41, the time the train was to have departed Flagstaff, but we learn it’ll be another twenty minutes before it arrives.
At six, everyone begins collecting their luggage. The station agent instructs those in coaches to head to the right and those with sleeper car accommodations to go left. We make our way to the 430 car where an attendant takes our tickets, helps us aboard and directs us to our assigned berths. “The diner opens in 20 minutes,” we’re informed. At 6:10, the engineer blows his horn, signaling that it’s time to go. A few seconds later, the train begins to move into the darkness of the Southwest. In my compartment, I stare out into the dark sky as we leave the city. I nod off for a few seconds, but it’s hard to get back to sleep, so mostly I look out the window. To the southeast the sky is just a bit lighter and fewer of the stars can be seen. Slowly a thin red line is seen on the horizon and it gradually grows into a band of red. I make out the shape of what few trees grow in this country, the utility poles and lines of fence posts. As it becomes lighter, I notice I can tell the difference between the types of brush.
A little before 7 AM, I head to the dining car for breakfast. The train pulls into Winslow, stopping only for a minute to let off and pick up passengers. I’ve been through this town several times and have yet to see “a girl in a flatbed Ford.” The waitress, a young Hispanic woman with a bright smile, brings coffee and informs us of the day’s special. I decide to have the omelet made with three eggs, spinach, onions and tomatoes with a side of grits and cinnamon raisin toast. It’s a filling breakfast and the chef liberally sprinkled oregano on the omelet, giving it a nice spicy taste. While at breakfast, the sun breaks the horizon and its rays immediately light up the desert floor. Along the interstate, silver trailers pulled by semis reflect the light. Fence posts and utility poles cast long shadows. As the sun rises, the shadows are reeled in. We pass numerous freight trains, mostly hauling containers, but there’s one with piggy back trailers, and unit train of coal cars, another with closed hoppers hauling grain and another of tankers, hauling chemicals.
Before I realize it, the train has cut through the Petrified Forest National Park and is running along the Pesrco River as it makes its way to the New Mexico border. Although Interstate 40 parallels this section of track, it was originally Route 66, the highway made famous by Steinbeck in his Depression era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. When I was in school in Pittsburgh, I met a retired dentist who told me about his family’s trip out west in 1923. The man was in his 80s at the time I knew him, but was only about ten when his dad, who was a physician, decided to take off the entire summer. He packed up the family in a large car he described as looking like something off the Beverly Hillbillies set. As this was before road trips were popular and motels and service stations dotted the landscape; the family had to provide for themselves. They mostly camped at night and cooked their own food (carrying tents and a stove). He said that from the time they left Kansas City until they arrived in Los Angeles, the only paved roads were in towns. They had to serve as their own mechanics, too, often fixing half-dozen or so flats a day. As they boiled under the hot sun of the Southwest, they complained to their dad as to why they were driving while others were zooming past their car, riding comfortably in the sleek trains along the Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Route.
The train I’m on was the descendant of the Santa Fe Super Chief, which was introduced in the 1930s. At its time, the Super Chief was luxury on rail, featuring all Pullman sleeper cars powered by diesel engines. This was the train of Hollywood Stars and would later give the framework for the movie “Silver Streak,” which although it used a different name, followed the Santa Fe’s route between LA and Chicago and featured the comic antics of the young Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
We reach Gallup at 9 AM. From the sounds of the announcement, it sounds like the train crew is having problems with folks getting off the train to smoke and holding up operations. Gallup is just a quick stop to drop off and pick up passengers, but many have jumped onto the platform where they can legally smoke. The conductor wants to make up time and he tells people to only get off the train at scheduled stops. Since Amtrak went non-smoking twenty-some years ago, they have encouraged people who need to puff to take advantage of longer stops where they service the train. The next such stop is Albuquerque.
After Gallup, we climb. The wheels of the train squeak in the curves as they scrape against the side of the rails. To our north is a mesa that rises several hundred feet, the red Navajo sandstone is rich in the morning sun. To our south are lava fields, with the broken black rock only rising maybe fifty feet. Occasionally, in valley of sage is an ancient cottonwood, its huge trunk sprouting hundreds of scrawny limbs that twist every-which-way. This is Native American country. There are traditional southwest adobe housings along with many trailer and manufactured homes. Also, along what was once Route 66, are the ruins of motels and restaurants and trinket shops. For a hundred miles or so out of Gallup, the tracks parallel Interstate 40, alternating between being just north or south of the freeway. About fifty miles out of Albuquerque, the tracks drop to the southeast, before heading north along the upper waters of the Rio Grande. For the next three hundred miles, the tracks head north, paralleling Interstate 25.
During the morning, my daughter practices her violin and plays with the keyboard on her ipad to figure out the notes to a favorite song. I spend my time writing in a journal, looking out the window and reading Janisse Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River. No one is in a hurry.
Our reservation for lunch in the dining car is at 12:30 PM. The nice thing about a sleeper is that all meals are included, which means I eat more than I should. I have a veggie burger, made out of black beans. It’s pretty good. Included are chips, ice tea and desert. I have a cup of raspberry sorbet.
We arrive in Albuquerque on-time, having made up nearly thirty minutes. Albuquerque is a long stop, nearly forty minutes, as the conductors and engineers change (the car attendants and dining car attendants remain the same the entire trip) and the train’s locomotives are fueled while the water tanks in the passenger cars are filled. During the stop here, I get out and walk up and down the tracks. On the edge of the tracks are Native American vendors selling jewelry and woven rugs and hats. We leave Albuquerque at 12:10, right on time. As we leave the city, the tracks take us through back yards that all seem to contain a wood-fired adobe beehive oven (something I’d always wanted). The houses all have satellite dishes. Some are traditional southwest looking homes, but many are not.
The Lamy station is the transfer point for those whose destination is Santa Fe. Ironically, although the famous town became the name of a railroad, the main line never made it to Santa Fe. The mountains were too steep to put the tracks into the town, so the town of Lamy was built. A short-line still branch off the mainline here, but those passengers desiring to get to Santa Fe, there is a bus. The train snakes through steep cuts in the pale orange sandstone as we leave Lamy. At times, the walls are so close to the tracks that if a window was open, one could reach out and touch the rock. Our progress is slow as the grade is steep as we move into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, climbing up the Glorieta Mesa. According to the timetable, it’ll take us nearly two hours to cover the 65 miles between Lamy and Las Vegas. The snow is also deeper, pinion and gamble oaks are now mixed in with the juniper. The late summer blooms on the rabbit brush is now brown.
Once we reach the Glorieta sidings, the track isn’t quite as steep and the train picks up speed. The westbound Southwest Chief passes us; it’ll be in LA tomorrow morning. I head to the lounge/observation car where I spend the afternoon, looking at the scenery (here I can see both sides of the tracks) while writing and talking to fellow passengers. We parallel Interstate 25; when the tracks are level we make good time and when they are steep, we slow down. Here, on top of the mesa, there are fewer cuts into the rocks and as the train snakes, we can see the engines up front and the coach cars on the back end.
Las Vegas, New Mexico isn’t as glitzy as its named counterpart in Nevada. But it’s an older town along the Santa Fe Trail. Next to the typical mission style train station Castendada, an old hotel and “Harvey House.” In the days before dining cars, the trains would stop here and the folks at the “Harvey House” were assigned the task of feeding the entire train as quickly as possible in order that they could get back on the road. Leaving Las Vegas at 3:15, the tracks carry us along high plateau, mostly grasslands with the occasional windmill and ranch house. The sun is now dropping in the southwestern sky as the magic hour approaches. In the winter, the sun seems to hang on a little longer and everything is bathed in soft light. The brown grass turns golden. Yesterday, at this time, we were driving across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, through the polygamous towns of Hillsdale and Colorado City as we were heading to Flagstaff to catch the train. Canaan Mountain, in its various bands of colored sandstone, was beautiful in the low light. Today’s landscape isn’t quite as dramatic but it’s still beautiful as the sun casts warm hues across the plateau. The sun finally gives up and drops behind the mountains a few minutes before we arrive in Raton.
Raton is a longer stop and I get off the train and walk up and down the platform. It’s colder, now that the sun has set and we’re in higher elevation. In the summer, thousands of Boy Scouts get off here in order to visit the Philmont Scout Ranch, for a week or two of hiking in the Desert Mountains of the Southwest. I’m told that having a large scout group on the train can be a trying experience for the rest of the travelers, but we don’t have to worry about it as its winter. I’ve taken this route once before, during the summer of 1993, but since I had a sleeper, I was spared the experience as the scouts onboard were all in coach. When we leave Raton, we’re on some of the steepest track in the country. We’re five cars behind the locomotives, yet can hear them groan as they work hard to pull us up the grade. At times it seems we’re going no faster than I can walk. The track is so steep that a marble dropped on the floor would race to the back of the car. It takes nearly an hour to go from Raton, New Mexico to Trinidad, Colorado, a distance of only 24 miles. At the summit, the tracks are at 7588 feet, the highest point along the Santa Fe line. We rush through the Raton Tunnel and then begin our descent. But even the downhill is steep and curvy and the engineer maintains a slow descent. Its pitch dark by the time we reach Trinidad.
Our dinner reservations are at 6 PM and since we don’t have enough for a full table, we are seated with a solo traveler who introduces himself as “Dave, a hillbilly from West Virginia.” He’s quite a talker, telling about working in the coal mines as a kid and then leaving the state and doing various jobs around the country including working behind the scenes in the movies. He’d gotten on in Santa Fe and is heading back to his home country where he’s planning on retiring. For dinner, I have a chipotle beef tip with apricot sauce, roasted vegetables, rice and a salad. I’m not a big beef person, unless the meat has been spiced up some. This was delicious! After dinner, the train stopped in La Junita, Colorado. We’re fifteen minutes early. Since the engineers and conductors change here; we have nearly a 30 minute break. But it’s cold, 14 degrees, so after walking the length of the train a few times, I seek the shelter of the car, where our attendant is busy putting down the beds. I’d talked to him earlier today. He’s been an attendant for Amtrak for 35 years. He started working with them during the summer, when he was a grad student working on a photojournalism degree. He stayed with it, taking on average three six-day trips a month (a trip from LA to Chicago with a layover day and then back to LA is considered a 6 day trip).
Through this section, I have a good data signal and spend the next hour updating my facebook page and reading and commenting on blogs. We stop briefly in Lamar, to let off and receive passengers. As we leave, I put away my laptop and pull the covers over me. Outside, it’s cold and snowy. The stars are bright and Orion and his dog seem to be just outside my window. We pass a number of grain elevators and enter the Central Time Zone. It’s now 10:30 PM and I call it a night.
I sleep well, waking up only once, at 5:15 AM. We’re at Topeka, then. The station is on the other side of the train, and from my window I look out at a rather sizable rail yard. Freight trains are being assembled. The lights are so much that I can barely see the stars, but I pick out what I think are the two bright stars that make up the arrow in the archer’s bow, but then realize I shouldn’t be seeing that constellation this time of the year and that it must be Cygnus the Swan. As we begin to move out, I fall back asleep. At 7 AM, the announcer comes on and says we’re in Kansas City, a fifteen minute stop. I pull on a gym suit and walk outside for fresh air. When the engine whistles and the conductor calls “all aboard,” I jump back onboard and go to the diner for breakfast. This morning I take it easy, enjoying a bowl of steel cut oatmeal along with some fruit and toast and, of course, coffee. We’re seated with a woman from Royal Oak, Michigan, who has been visiting family in Kansas. She’ll be on the same train we’ll take out of Chicago, although she’ll have two and a half more hours of travel, arriving at her station at midnight (if the train is on time). As we eat, we cross the Missouri River. A unit train of grain hoppers passes us, heading west. There is no snow here in the Midwest, just brown fields and bare trees. The tracks cut through the northwest corner of Missouri and the southeast corner of Iowa, as we race along through farmland and wooded areas and the occasional town. Broom sledge, brown and dry, line the tracks thought much of this section. We stop in La Plata, Missouri. This is a small station and we have to make two stops, one to let off the sleeping car passengers and again to let off those riding in the coaches on the back end of the train. Over half of the passengers appear to be Amish in their traditional dress.
As we approach Fort Madison, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, we pass the factory where they make the large electrical windmills. Hundreds of blades are stored around the buildings and some of them are on secured to flat rail cars, awaiting shipment. Fort Madison is a “smoke stop” and I get off to get some fresh air (there seems to be only one smoker in our car and he walks far away from the train to light up). I walk around a bit, but we are only stopped for a few minutes before the engineer blows the whistle and the “all aboard” call is made. It’s okay because they have already called the 11:45 AM dining reservations (it’s only 11:15). We’re about 10 minutes behind schedule, but all bets are on that we’ll make that back up as we race into Chicago. In the dining car, as we pull out of the station, the tracks parallel the Mississippi River. A paddle-wheeled riverboat is tied up at the docks and I pose to get a shot when we go by, but just before we get there a pair of orange, black and yellow Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotives on the next track blocks my view. It’s a unit of cars filled with automobiles. Soon, the tracks make a right hand bend and we’re on the trestle over the Mississippi and into Illinois, the final state of our journey. This is farm country. The dirt is black and the fields of corn and soybeans are fallow in the winter. Along the edges of the fields are farm houses and barns.
For lunch, I have the chef’s special. I am not normally a big macaroni and cheese fan, but his mac and cheese includes cauliflower, corn, garlic and chipotle sauce. It was good and has a spicy bite to it. The meal is especially filling since it includes a salad and a dinner roll. When we leave, we say goodbye to the dining staff as they’ve treated us well this trip.
Our first stop in Illinois is Galesburg, a railroad town. Tracks merge here before heading into Chicago. At the station, many of the Amish get off the train along with a few other passengers. Next to the station is the Galesburg Rail Museum. Someday I need to make a stop here. On display is a Burlington Route steamer with a couple of Pullman cars. There have been a number of old steam locomotives on display in the various towns we’ve traveled through. In this part, they’re always the over-sized Burlington Route or CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy) steamers designed for fast transportation across the plains. On the other side of Kansas City, they’re Atkinson, Topeka & Santa Fe locomotives, most of which are smaller and better on the curves. Riding through this country of farms and small cities, we see the backyard of America, filled with clothes lines and swing sets. Many of the streets that run out from the tracks have wooden two-storied box-shaped homes and are lined with trees. But it doesn’t quite look right as there is no snow on the ground, which is usual for January.
We pull into Chicago’s Union Station on time, at 3 PM. We’ve covered 1699 miles in 33 hours, having traveled through deserts and mountain, through reservations and many small towns and a few larger cities, crossed the great rivers and the rich farmland of America’s heartland!
With a three hour layover, we head to the Great Room. It’s still decorated for Christmas. We camp out on the wooden bench seats. As I finish reading Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien, a police officer stops to ask what I’m reading. I try to explain the book and he asks if it’s like the book they made into a movie with Brad Pitts about two boys and their father a Lutheran minister in Montana. “You mean, A River Runs Through It?” I ask. “That’s it,” he says. I correct him saying that the dad wasn’t Lutheran but Presbyterian and explain the differences between the books. Although I am enjoying Ray’s writing, it’s nothing like MacLean’s masterpiece. I tell him a bit about Ray and her writing about nature in the South. He acknowledges the number of great southern writers and notes the rising number of southern crime fiction authors. I admit I haven’t read much in that genre unless Carl Haaisen’s writing could be classified in the genre. I’m surprised that he knows Haaisen, and he asks if I’ve read Thomas Cook. I haven’t and he tells me about a crime fiction book Cook wrote that’s sent in Birmingham, during the days of Bull O’Conner. As we talk, he seems to know a lot about Cook and the setting and I ask if he knows Cook and he admits that he’s talked to him a number of times, saying that he plays in the crime fiction genre. When I ask if he’s published anything, he acknowledges that he’s shopping a novel, but has a non-fiction book in print titled Just the Facts: True Tales of Cops and Criminals.
At five, an hour before departure, we head into the crowded waiting room. I talk a bit with an Amish man who’s just travelled here from central Pennsylvania to see a couple families off to Mexico. At 5:30, the make the first call for the Wolverine, the train that’ll take us to Kalamazoo and home. We board, climbing up iced-over stairs. The train is crowded. We start slowly, going through the maze of tracks south of Chicago, before circling around the south shore of Lake Michigan. It’s a short trip, just two and a half hours (plus another hour due to the change of time zones). At Niles, I call my friends where I’d left my truck. They tell me they’ll be there at the station. It’ll be nice to be home as I hear it’s been snowing. At 9:30, right on time, the train stops in Kalamazoo and we carefully make our way down the icy steps. After a thirty minute drive, our trip will be over.