|Roll On, Columbia...|
|Thursday 28/02/2013 12:38|
Departing King Street Station heading north was a new experience, and once out of the tunnel the tracks swung onto the waterfront alongside Alaskan Way. The grey afternoon reflected in Puget Sound, giving the scene a quiet, wintry beauty which oddly reminded me of Scotland. It was strange - and more than a little emotional - to look on this scene which had signified so much which was new and different about these past few months, and to consider how things would soon be changing again. The tracks hugged the coast through Ballard and Mukilteo before swinging inland at Everett and starting the long slow climb into the Cascades. The scenery shifted - a rural patchwork of farmland not dissimilar to home in Snohomish County which became sparser, tougher country as we climbed through Monroe and Sultan towards the Cascades Tunnel. Suddenly, in the darkness outside the dining car there was snow beside the line. Deep, thick, virgin snowfall which was unlike anything I'd seen before. I was entranced. As we curved and twisted through the mountains, navigating Stevens Pass at ear-popping altitude, we chatted to a family heading home from a week in Seattle. We told them our plans, and once again we found a genuine happiness in strangers' responses which warmed the heart despite the cold outdoors. Our destination was Wenatchee, and we alighted at Columbia River station late in the evening. As the car drifted along the city's streets I recalled my first evening in the USA, looking out at the passing strip-malls and eateries of Granite City, Illinois - this was oddly similar, save for the looming mountains on the horizon. I felt comfortably familiar with this middle-American scene.
Waking to sunshine and mountains was a surprise after the usual slate skies in Seattle, and as I began to make sense of the surroundings I also began to rather like this little outpost of a city. Yes, it carries all kinds of emotional burdens for people close to me - and it shares my own former home town's ability to wind me back in time to a bored, ill-fitting teenager at a moment's notice. It's also an oddly conservative colony - a distinct contrast to things west of the Cascades - but in its little eateries and dusty corners, there is something here. History, events that were inconsequential at the time, but lead up to now - and my own entanglement in the story.
A day or two into the trip and we head out in the car to Yakima. It's a three hour drive across the plains of central Washington, largely following the valley of the mighty Columbia River and it's dams. The mountains loom on both sides of our route, but here between them it is flat, dry and empty. The river snakes in and out of view, running slow between its reservoirs now. Appropriately, the scene opens out at Vantage - the river a long, broad lake between steely ranges of rock. The highway swings west, across a low bridge which leads towards another climb. The sky feels closer here somehow. I'm moved to silence, taking in the broad-angle view. I've never seen anything quite like this before - never appreciated scale in quite this way. The midwest is a bit of a distant memory now, but it lacks the reference points which the mountains offer, and which dwarf the tiny strip of highway rising into the western sky.
At Columbia River station absurdly early and just a few mornings later, we're boarding the train back to Seattle. It's not been an easy visit for many reasons, but it has placed more markers in my mental map of the state, and in the timeline which stretches back. I think of my historical links to the area - the endless letters launched overseas to obtain music, the curious kinship of the low-tech labels. It's truly strange how the strands of the story should re-entangle here in this little gap in the mountains...
|A Flood of Festivity|
|Tuesday 25/12/2012 21:22|
So, I find myself scanning weather reports and trying to determine just how badly the floods will affect travel when the network grinds back into action. With two days of almost no trains, it's impossible to gauge the disruption as there are no reports to evaluate. I'm anxious, nervous almost - the worry about getting to Heathrow on time tumbling into the concern about a first visit to the UK and what impression it will make. This past few cold, wet weeks have been hard going - separation and distance becoming acute and painful to bear. Looking forward there are travels - as ever at this time of year - but they'll have an entirely different significance of course.
At this time when people are coming together and I'm normally standing disdainfully off-camera, perhaps I suddenly understand all this a little better?
|Saturday 24/11/2012 22:47|
From our temporary home on Stark Street, Powell's World of Books is not far away. A city-block sized store across four floors and several crazily confusing sub-divided areas, this is a truly remarkable place. With used and new books filed alongside each other, there is a wonderfully Portland-like sense of being offered a fair deal here. The selection of books, the range of subjects and the surprising depth of the range is astonishing. We set out with a basket which increasingly filled - not just with books but with smart, well-chosen arty cards and suchlike. Eventually, after several hours here we paused and common sense descended. We had to weed out our purchases carefully. We found a spot and showed immense restraint in selecting a few choice things to purchase. Oddly, here in this mecca of books, it didn't feel painful to have to surrender a title or two - being surrounded by books you could never hope to purchase seemed to assist in that.
Voodoo Donuts, PDX
The remainder of this short visit seemed to involve lots of food and beer - both of which Portland is pretty good at supplying. But a special place will always be reserved for Voodoo Donuts. We'd talked about this place and it was an essential visit. Forget the antics of Heston Blumenthal - this place has been making giant donuts for years, and has dabbled in the absurd by including pepto-bismol fillings and crushed aspirin for the badly-hungover. With the rain blown away by a Pacific wind, it was a bracing but perfect walk down Burnside towards Voodoo. We'd been warned off walking this way at night - and while it was fair to say this was a colourful neighbourhood of adult cinemas and empty lots, it felt no worse - and far less menacing - than many cities I've passed through. Finally we found Voodoo by virtue of it's line - even this early on a weekend morning there was a queue around the block for this local institution. The gaudy pink building with it's Alice-in-Wonderland like diorama of giant donuts and paraphenalia was hot, dizzying and smelled strongly of melting sugar and hot dough. Our purchases in hand we slipped over to the adjacent coffee stand which was doing equally brisk business with the sugar-sodden masses. The return walk was via the outdoor market and Chinatown, the iconic ironwork of the bridges in the background. The older buildings in this neighbourhood had achieved state protection - perhaps a rarer status here than at home, but welcome. It seems that here, redevelopment is at least a little bit more sensitive than elsewhere in the US.
One last trip before we left the Ace, and indeed Portland, was to the line of tiny boutique stores along the street adjacent. Among these was Tender Loving Empire - a record label, distributor of local artists' work, and generally surprisingly packed with strange and wonderful items. The store was busy, bustling with people - and not just hipsters. We browsed the music - listened to Loch Lomond which completed a circle right back to Song, By Toad in Edinburgh, my blogging exploits and Scottish links. In fact we almost missed the train back to Seattle in our leisurely browsing. But finally after a haphazard cab ride to Union Station we settled into the seats and watched the Columbia River slip by as we began the journey north. For me, it was the beginning of a longer journey home too in some ways - and with the novelty of just $14 between us, we celebrated with overpriced beer and watched darkness fall on the Pacific North West. The couple of days we spent in Portland were an eye-opening, intriguing rush through a city that I'm certain I want to revisit.
|Thanksgiving on The Cascades|
|Thursday 22/11/2012 23:26|
The train to Portland is a new experience - fusing the frustration of air travel with the familiarity of railways. We check in and get assigned a seat, then wait in the booking hall which only hints at the grand opulence of the under-reconstruction King Street Station. When called we shuffle out to the train - a strikingly modern Talgo set hauled by an EMD locomotive which yings just like their products do here in the UK. It's a comforting sound in some ways, and reminds me I'm about to hit the rails for the first time in this vast continent. Sure, I've done light rail systems all over the place, but this is my first intercity journey. It's a strange sensation at first to be travelling on the 'wrong' side of the formation - but I'm soon distracted by the novelty of double-height containers in stockyards, endlessly long trains of soy bean hoppers, and more immediately the luxury of settling into my seat in company - something which has almost never been a feature of my travels. Certainly, it's never been like this - and I don't want the journey to end. The route turns west to call at Tacoma, then hugs the coastline of the Sound under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - veteran of science documentaries about harmonics, the iconic image of it swinging and bucking now replaced with a sense of awe at its fragile grace in the half-light. As we approach Olympia we retire to the Dining Car to sip beer and look at the water shimmering under the silver sky. Rakes of evergreens march up the hillsides away from the tracks, as we turn south again and head inland.
Inside Union Station, PDX
Between here and the Columbia river is something of a haze of warm, comfortable travel in rare company. It seems all too soon that we're clattering over the gridirons and bridges which dominate the northern flank of Portland, passing into previously uncharted Oregon in the process. It's early evening - a little before six - but it's dark and the city twinkles invitingly beyond the illuminated tower of Union Station. Crossing the tracks to enter the building, we're the last passengers to leave because we've been taking photographs. The grand hall of the station is a surprise - a marbled palace of generous proportions, with remarkable similarities to some of the stations back at home. We head out into the chilly, dark evening and line up for a cab to the almost painfully hip but cleverly decorated Ace Hotel - and what will be my first ever Thanksgiving. I can't help but think our way of celebrating, a long way from everything which is usually associated with this resolutely un-British occasion, will be far from traditional. As we shudder our stop-start progress through the traffic lights of Burnside and Stark, and catch the first sight of the exterior of the old hotel I recall reading that it was once The Clyde. I'm never far from Glasgow, even when I'm truly a long way off. I can't help but hope that we get to cross the other Clyde very, very soon indeed.
|Tuesday 23/10/2012 15:30|
Somewhere during the last twenty-four hours, between leaving SeaTac and departing from Schipol, I realised that life was suddenly moving much faster. After a long period of treading water in a comfortably pleasant way - maybe even years of it - I was being challenged. There's every likelihood that up to now, I'd have let the opportunity pass by like many others. But this time, I know I can't. This is far, far too important...
|Pedestrians Do Not Have Priority|
|Friday 13/08/2010 20:29|
I arrived at the very same square today, under skies just as leaden despite the season. Recalling that I was travelling light and didn't have a coat, I set off for my hotel with the chill wind seeping through my clothes and speeding up my pace. The first thing I noticed was the lack of a horizon here. Wherever the pedestrian in Milton Keynes stands, there is only the view of a straight path ahead, undulating via underpasses to avoid at-grade crossings. This makes it impossibly tricky to judge distance, and not really having any sense of how far I needed to walk I set off along Midsummer Boulevard, part of a complex of streets named after Avebury, Silbury - an attempt to link the geometry of the street to an ancient tradition perhaps? This main road sets the pattern for similar thoroughfares here - a wide dual carriageway, with brick-surfaced service roads and patches of parking alongside. A generous but badly maintained pedestrian and cycle way runs alongside, with occasional covered walkways leading onto the road. There is, however, no safe means of crossing at these points. Some bear the stark message "Pedestrians Do Not Have Priority" in black on yellow. I pressed on, cresting a subway and seeing my hotel's sign - deceptively close as it was much taller than surrounding buildings. When MK was planned - with no building "taller than the tallest tree" a series of glass and concrete blocks lined this road. Many of them survive, extended - often with inexplicable canopies covering nothing at all. Does it rain more here than elsewhere? It certainly did today, and despite the proximity of the hotel, I was forced to shelter under one of the purposeless canopies for a while.
After checking in to a comfortably faceless chain hotel, I wandered up to the shopping area. MK is zoned aggressively, and boasts the longest 'covered High Street in Europe'. I can understand why, because this concept of shopping is bizarre. Once inside the listed shopping building, via a new glass atrium filled with food chains, one is drawn endlessly along a high-ceilinged greenhouse with shops lining one or both sides. Occasionally portals open onto the street, and nearby shops over the seemingly impassable road can be glimpsed. What you want is always 'over there' and the signs point hopefully towards the destination, with no disclaimer based on the high-speed traffic between you and your goal. Among the usual high street names, rather poignantly, small independent retailers remain. Their shopfronts harking back to the 1960s when this zone was built - oddly out of place in the modernist enclosure of the shopping building. It's uncomfortable, and they seem lost and decaying here. A sports shop, crammed with goods, sits off the main line of shops with a wooden shopfront and a joyfully retro plastic sign. I'd have taken a picture, but I was already beginning to attract the attention of the bored security guards, particularly when I snapped the infamous Concrete Cows, temporarily at home in the shopping area. I realised I was browsing - the rest of the visitors, a small stream at this time of day, were trudging by without looking. I must seem like I was casing the joint! Dodged out through a strange, grubby marketplace. The alley between the stalls a dark, menacing and stinking slot. Opted instead for an ill-advised road crossing to get to a supermarket. Even this felt odd, and I was chastised for walking around the aisles the wrong way. Around now I realised I was being followed. Not by security, but by a small group of teenagers. They laughed and pointed - and this I'm used to, as I am of somewhat novel appearance I suppose. But the continued to do so, over the road, into the supermarket. I felt more disturbed than threatened. Was this the most interesting thing to do here?
Pedestrians Do Not Have Priority
What appears a uniform - or even simply possible - walk from the air is different from the ground - the long straight boulevards are just as disturbingly linear as they appear, but the undulations as the path snakes under bridges and around parking zones makes walking Milton Keynes difficult. For that reason, as a confirmed pedestrian, I could only skirt the fringe of some parts of the place. There was a bus service - seemingly frequent and connecting all the aspirationally named suburbs to the hub - but even this was a little tired. No modern, rapid vehicles to suit a modern town here - lots of tiny operators running clapped out minibuses alongside some ageing single deckers. The whole service seemingly designed to be be frequent enough to make crossing the road impossible.
Back at the hotel, I looked out over the wet vista. The dome of Christ the Cornerstone - even the church wilfully earthbound in its allusion to the building process - dominated the skyline. Beyond, lines of trees announced the border of the housing zones - tiny communities defined by a grid and self-contained. The roof of the leisure building also zoomed high above the offices. I hadn't got that far, and didn't intend to. I'd seen enough of Milton Keynes for now. Contemplated a very early morning departure, but realised a check out would be difficult. I was condemned to a full night here, aching from my walk and sleepless from my over active mind.
I should have liked Milton Keynes. I like the thrill of modernism, and the regularity of planned spaces. I've deliberately sought out the model suburbs elsewhere, and this planned community on a grand scale should have been the ultimate in the line. However, it has aged poorly. An old building left to decay has stately dilapidation to look forward to, whilst a modern building has none of the glamour. The buildings here are tired, often pointless, usually poorly accessible. The car was king when MK was planned, and now it is emperor - rendering the place as unfriendly to pedestrians as many US cities, despite it's efforts to provide for the foot passenger. The lack of scale, of distance and of horizon is uncomfortable, cloying and ultimately disorienting. I don't think it's possible to be truly at ease here.