Monday, April 24, 2006

Cultural difference # 1

Does the United States Post Office really save money by making their own vans from flat packs? I mean, Ford and GM both make good vans, I'm sure they could get a good deal...


To all the denizens of Denver ('Deniverizens'?) I must apologise. I didn't chose to visit your beautiful city for any particular outstanding reason; the Mile High City (so named because of it's altitude above sea level on a plateau that leads up to the Rocky Mountains) presented itself to me as an interesting point for a stopover because it came at a convenient mid-point in my trip. Rather than do fifty to fifty-five straight hours on the train from Chicago to San Francisco, I decided to take a break in a city I'd heard a bit about and which sounded to offer enough distractions for a day or so.

However, it's at this point that I realise any career I might have as a budding travel writer is not going to be taking off soon. I've arrived in Denver on Monday morning, and it's on Monday that most of Denver's most interesting museums close for the day. A few remain open but the most interesting for me, the Denver Art Museum, is most definitely closed. I had already realised this during my trip planning stage, but without completely re-booking the whole trip there was no way around my bad timing.

So, I resign myself to a day exploring Denver's other charms. I start by finding my accomodation for the night - a very comfy sofa in the nice apartment of Rob, a member (like me) of the ever useful Hospitality Club, which will be helping me find free and interesting places to stay during my trip. He's conveniently close to downtown, and after I've had a refreshing hot shower and changed my clothes, I head out into the morning. Denver's downtown core opens up before me as I cross the railway tracks on the recently built Millenium Bridge (see photograph above).

Denver is a city that has put all it's weight into making it's city centre easy for tourists and visitors to navigate. The city is no longer limited to just being a good base for the mountains, and a lot of money has been spent on Sixteenth Street Mall (shown here), the main shopping drag that runs from near to Union Station down to the Capitol Building. In fact, it's a good place to spend a day off the train, because everything is walkable from the station, and the downtown area is easy to explore. The mall has been re-designed to make more room for pedestrians, and whirring hybrid-electric buses swoosh up and down offering a free shuttle for the length of the mall.

Although I am already regreting coming here on the one day of the week when Denver's museum workers all have a day off (perhaps they go bowling or do some other fun group activity together?) there is a small silver lining to the grey clouds. The Denver Art Museum is in the midst of a major extension project, so even if I had been able to get in, I would have been annoyed at being here too early to see the new wing. Here's a photograph. Being a young upstart of an architect I won't bore you too much with my opinion, but it saddens me to see that another city has been seduced by the arrogrant self refenetial architectural b------t of Studio Daniel Liebskind. I bet the words 'landmark building' were used when they won the competition to design this extremely expensive and impractical lump. Just a shame he's doing something virtually identical in Toronto. In fact, the Denver Art Museum has decided to emphasise it's modernity by shortening it's name to DAM in much of it's puclicity. Even that reminds me of Toronto's ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). Could any world class architects please step up to the plate and try designing a landmark building that reflects the location in which it's built? Please...?

I have a look round the elegant Capitol Buildings, and climb the steps that, over time, have marked the exact point at which you are one mile above sea level at three different elevations. Each time some doubt has been cast over the precision of the method used to determine altitude above sea level. Since Denver is several thousand kilometres from the sea, I can understand the difficulties, and resign myself to knowing that at some exact point during the couple of minutes I spend on the steps, I was exactly one mile above sea level.

I find a second hand bookshop near-by (Capitol Hill Books on East Colfax) and purchase two old paperback pulp novels to read on the train... 'The Blue Chips' by Jay Deiss ("Can a fiery young man dedicated to the asutere morals of medicine resist the temptations of the big money in miracle drugs? A novel that dares to tell the truth!") and 'Trieste' by Desmond Cory ("A Johnny Fedora Espionage Assignment"). Excellent.

I stop for a burger at the City Grille bar opposite and sample "the best burger in Denver". It is, indeed, very good, but I don't have the stomach to compare it with every other burger in Denver. I shall trust their claims.

I spend the afternoon exploring the city centre, peering inside the gorgeous old Brown Palace Hotel, which proudly occupies a corner plot in the downtown core. If you're visiting, and even if you're not staying there, walk inside and look up from the lobby the middle of the building. Every floor opens into the atrium with an open balcony, and it's a gorgeous space that recalls the grandeur it would have impressed on guests when it first opened one hundred and thirteen years ago.

I'm feeling tired by the end of the afternoon, and after a quick browse of the famous Tattered Covered Bookstore to find the latest 'Comics Journal' I return to my host's apartment to write and prepare some food for tomorrow's journey.

Later that evening, I head out for drinks on Sixteenth Street Mall and near Larimer Square with a fellow Amtrak passenger who I met en route to Denver. We talk travel, trains, beer and cocktails... the last of which we had some difficulty finding with any quality. Perhaps next time :-)

I return to the apartment at about eleven, and collapse into a blissful sleep on the comfy and (more importantly) horizontal surface...


Train 5: Somewhere in Colorado

I wake up before 06:00. When I was on my last train, the crew and at least one other passenger said that this (my next) train would be much more comfortable. But in the same way that I found the atmosphere on board the California Zephyr underwhelming, I must also admit that I slept much more comfortably on the Lake Shore Limited. I don't know why, but this morning all my initially happy impressions of sleeping coach class have vanished, and I stumbled to the cafe car in search of caffeine while nursing a variety stiff and aching muscles. I will have to purloin more Amtrak pillows to cushion my various boney bits for my next night on the train.

Luckily the cafe car is soon open, and like a long line of other passengers, I get my caffeine fix. With a cereal bar (from a bulk box I got cheap from work) I'm soon ready for the day. We are still some way away from Denver, and to be honest the weather is not looking great. We run alongside a highway for a number of kilometres; the trucks are throwing up huge sprays of water, and the cars zipping past are running with their windshield wipers on.

However, we seem to be making up time, and through the murky weather we can soon just make out the outline of Denver's skyline through the mist and the rain. We pull through the freight yards, and then back into Denver's Union Station. I wish a few of my fellow passengers a safe trip, and leave the train into the fresh, damp air. Nothing like a grey day to make an Englishman feel at home :-)


Train 5: Into the first sunset

If I can confess something between you (dear readers) and I (pooped James), but I must admit to being a bit disappointed with the atmosphere on train 5. On an evening sojourn to the cafe below the Sightseer car, the attendant admits that it's a very 'light load' today. We're between the first holiday weekends of the season and the next big jump in traffic as the summer begins. I had hoped, by now, to have been acosted by numerous holiday makers, backpackers and elegant single female travellers with lots of money. Better luck next time, I guess.

In the evenings, long distance Amtrak trains treat their passengers to a film or two in the Sightseer car. However, due to the mixed load of passengers, the choice of films from which Amtrak can pick is limited to the family friendly muck the Hollywood churns out to keep the sprogs happy. What little of the two films I saw has already mushed by brain to the extent that I can't remember what they were called. But, it was a nice touch and kept a number of families entertained. The 'special' experience of traveling by train has been eroded over time with the gradual disappearance of many of the little luxuries, but even in coach class this kind of long distance trip is perfect for a family. No stressed out highway moments, no need for rest breaks, and there's no need for everyone to be strapped in all the time (although I understand that many parents may be laughing out loud at my naive assumption that this is a good thing...)

I drink a beer and watch the sun set to the western horizon that we speeding towards. At no point so far have we slipped below a fairly rapid pace, and we seem to be keeping good time. But somewhat dulled by the lack of conversation and banter in the lounge car (which was very lively on the shorter distance Lake Shore Limited to Chicago).

Around ten o'clock, I retire to the coach car, and find a pillow has been left for me by the crew. Many of the passengers in the car are already asleep. The lady immediately behind me is already snoring. Smug James digs out his ear plugs in preparation, but passes a while listening to some BBC Radio 4 podcasts that I downloaded before leaving Montreal. Start The Week with Andrew Marr and invited guests is about conquerers... or something like that. Normally I'd be engaged and thinking at the same pace as the conversation, but I'm soon dozing and finding the topic of discussion has changed completely in what seems like a few seconds. I unplug myself, assume the sleeping posture (shoes off, leg rest up, pillow next to waist, inflatable pillow under neck and arms anywhere they don't get in the way). I pull the mask down, and I begin to rock back and forth into sleep.