Saturday, August 10, 2013

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

iTunes is playing me You Better Be Home Soon (Crowded House) as I cross Marias Pass on the Empire Builder. I'm back on the right side of the Continental Divide, in Blackfeet country, thinking about Lewis and Clark in 1806 and how lucky they were to hook up with Sacajawea. From here, they still had-- oh, I don't know-- 2 years to get back home? We're running parallel to US Rt 2, which will take me back to my home and so many of the people I can't live without. I am sitting in a comfortable seat with my husband beside me, my cell phone and laptop plugged in and my camera on my lap. It may be a 4 day journey home, but I have it pretty good, and I know it.

We are road warriors. I  made reference earlier to riding shotgun til I die, but that really describes our marriage. I have the map, he has the wheel. He's a bit more adventurous, and I make sure everything has enough of a schedule that we don't have a mess to clean up when we get back home. Together we make a pretty solid pair. We've done some crazy things-- driving to a wedding in VA and back in a weekend comes to mind-- but as long as we're together I know we'll be ok.

Our first extended trip as a couple was to the 1996 Olympics. At that point, my sister and brother in law lived outside of Atlanta, so we drove down to see them, and the Games. On the way we stopped at my other sister's in Chapel Hill (and had some Hush Puppies that I still think about). We also drove the Delmarva Peninsula. Learn from our experience-- never take the scenic route when you're too tired to see straight. We had to pull into a parking lot and sleep for a few hours to be able to get to Dunwoody in one piece. Sadly, driving without stopping is a recurring theme of ours: our fathers are both responsible for that, but I digress. I made a mix tape for that drive-- remember those? Our trip home took us through the Blue Ridge Parkway, but again, I was too tired to appreciate it. I fell asleep and missed all the views, and Dave couldn't appreciate them and drive so we got back on 95N. The Mountains Won Again.

My sister enrolled in a Ph.D program at University of New Mexico in Alberquerque. That was our first experience flying with preschoolers. And carseats. They were troopers. Truth be told, so were we. The kids were 2 and 4. They each had their adorable backpacks (ladybug and Cookie Monster) filled with coloring books, crayons, lollipops, and M&Ms. It takes 3 planes to get from MHT to ABQ; I guess all I'm sayin' is you haven't lived until you've changed terminals with toddlers, carseats, and carryons. We were the first siblings to visit them, so they treated us to the full tour: Petroglyph Park, Natural History Museum, a ride on the Sante Fe railroad, Sandia Crest-- I feel like we saw just about everything except a Georgia O'Keefe instalation. And a George R. R. Martin fangirl experience, but I hadn't read The Game of Thrones yet-- maybe he hadn't even published it yet?-- so I had no clue what I was missing. That was also the trip I first rode on Route 66-- and when I decided that someday Dave and I would drive the whole thing. I don't know what it is about old roads, but I am fascinated by them. It's probably the same part of me that is thrilled to be on this train; I'm heading down the same path that brought our society to where it is today. We are all connected to the bigger picture.

The kids first rock concert kicked off our next trip. My uncle-- Mr. Fabulous himself-- organized a family reunion in Palm Springs, CA, where he lived. Rufus Wainwright, Guster, and Ben Folds were playing an all ages triple bill outside of Manchester, NH and that seemed as good a way as any to kick off another cross country plane trip with those darned carseats. By the San Fransisco/Humbolt County trip, we didn't need the seats. Meeting my brother when he lived in Chicago was easy; direct route, and the kids were old pros at this game--almost as easy as our annual drives to Cape Cod to see Dave's aunt. Through it all, we adapted to new situations, experiencing different parts of the country while catching up with family.

As of yet, the only times we've crossed international borders are also the only times we've not been going to visit anyone we know. For our tenth anniversary, we took the ferry from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia. I was shocked at how motion sick I got. We rented a cabin and drove around the island, doing what we do best. For our fifteenth, we went back to Canada-- Quebec City, this time-- to see Arcade Fire and check out the old city. Live music and travel? An obvious choice.

My sister and family have finally settled in Montana, which means we're no longer cramming in the highlights when we go visit, but we have a laundry list of sites to check out in future years. (I think it also means they're done having children-- they had one in each location since Atlanta-- but that might just be a coincidence.) The first time we went out was after my youngest nephew was born. Dave was starting his Master's program through Montana State University; he'd discovered it and thought it had a pretty good program, and then my sister told us she'd accepted a job there. Fate does often wave her guiding hand our way. Anyhow, we drove out that time (thank you to those of you still reading now-- your encouragement of the first road journal is the reason this one exists), which really was an adventure in and of itself. And yes, we did stop to sleep; 500 miles a day is about all we can handle... and is definitely the outer reaches of what should be legal. We flew for the second trip-- Dave had to present his thesis, and that was enough pressure for one journey. Cate and I had our own MotherGirl last winter when we babysat the boys (As a side note, the difference between a 12 year old daughter and a 13 year old one is sort of like the difference between driving across country and flying. Holy moly, I'm out of my league here.) but that trip was about being together, not seeing the sights. Come to think of it, that's what all these trips have been about. Huh...

A few years ago, we arranged to meet my sister and family in DC. They'd come East to see his family, and wanted to see the Capital as well. Meeting up with them and seeing DC? Easy call right there. We've made it a goal to get the cousins together once a year, and for the most part we've been successful. It was easier flying home from that trip than the last Bozeman trip. We were grounded (in DC) due to late afternoon thunderstorms, and the autogenerated message from United told us we were rebooked for the following night, same time, same place...  and we knew the chances of THAT flight getting canceled were equally as high. We waited in a Line From Hell for 2+hours-- I felt for those ground crew members. There were approximately 4 planes of 100 passengers needing help-- and half the customers had originally booked on Continental before they got bought out. It didn't take a genius to recognize those 2 employees needed some help. We eventually got to a live human at 1-800-United and got that leg of our journey refunded, because we'd long since decided we were driving home. Remember before when I said we were known for crazy road warrior status? I present to you the penultimate example. We'd gotten up at 4 AM, Mountain time, and left DC at 11 PM Eastern. The plan was for me to nap, then I'd take the wheel and let Dave sleep, but I really should have known he agreed only so I'd go to sleep and not spend time trying to convince him to close his eyes. Ten hours later and after a 3 hour nap at my parents house, we returned the rental car to Portland and picked up our one checked bag (which HAD made it to PWM the day before. Go figure.) We were crossing the Canton/Peru line when the United autobot called to say the flight was canceled due to weather. It is nice to know that sometimes the stupid choice is still the right one. And to know we are officially too old to rock 'n roll all night-- but we can still pull it off when absolutely necessary.

Obviously, that experience factored into this Amtrak one. For this leg of the journey, we have 1 roomette, which is about the same size as the coach seats we also have, but contains 2 bunks and a door. The sleeper and family berths were way out of our price range, and when we booked last November all that was left was 1 roomette, which fits 2. As in barely. I was actually kind of happy with that situation-- it meant I didn't have to feel cheap about wanting a coach seat-- I was taking one for the team instead. We split down party lines, as usual-- Dave and Ben are technically in the room while Cate and I are holding down coach. Did I mention how out of touch I am with 13 year old girls? Have that girl be a first class introvert, and it didn't take long to realize she would be spending most of her waking hours in said room. Dave spent most of Montana wandering about, getting a feel for the different cars and what options exist. I haven't seen him for the last few stops, though, so I hope he's drifted off to sleep. He barely sleeps when we travel, so any chance he gets to sleep is a gift. Ben is enjoying the historical side of this trip as much as me ... well, not as much as, but more so than not. He's been reading Guns, Germs, and Steel for his summer homework (ok, needing to read, but he's reading now, Mr. Rowley) and it talks about the author's time in Montana as a young man. Again Fate waves at us as she passes by. (Ok, maybe this time it's Fate's cousin Coincidence waving, but still....)

The view out the windows is not completely what I expected. Yes, there are sweeping plains, hay bales and old homesteads mixed in with new farms. But there is also poverty. When the train tracks run behind knolls, what you see from the train side is very different than what you see from even the dirt road. Old vehicles from I can't tell how many decades ago rot in the fields, alongside trailers that I swear will blow away in the next big wind. I knew this would be part of the reality as we went through the reservations, but I guess I wasn't expecting it to be so stark. As I said in the beginning of this tale of wandering, I am very lucky. Not only do I have family spread all over the country, but I have the resources to go and visit them. Sure, we'll feel some pinch from this trip-- it's really been 2 trips; one to Bozeman to visit family and one to Glacier to visit the national park we love. But we'll still eat for the next few months, and eat pretty well at that. Our bills are all paid, and a broken water pipe or dead fridge won't render us living in the camper in the back yard. It is sobering to realize many people don't have it anywhere near as good as we do. Ben Folds sings to me his agreement.

Which is part of the reason we've taken the kids all over this country. We've wanted them to see different areas, for sure, to both appreciate what we have at home as well as figure out where they want to start their adult lives, but we've really wanted them to see how other people live. To understand what it is to live in a place where rain is a blessing. To see the people who grow most of our nation's food. To see the people who can afford to travel by plane, or train, or bus-- or not at all. There are some people who have never seen snow, and some people who have never seen skyscrapers-- or hayfields. When you have a sense of who else is out there, sharing oxygen and carbon with you, it's easier to know who you are, and what you value.

As we near the MT/ND border, we're crossing into the storm that's been raging off to our left. I watched farmers cut hay in the sun out one window, and lightening strike in the distance out the other. The rain is louder than I anticipated as well-- the windows are more flexible than you'd think.  It seems a fitting way to leave Mountain time and head into Central. For the record, I'll be very happy if I never see a twister in live time-- and from the looks of these clouds, that wish is not a guarantee. If the price of not being in a twister's way is not capturing a lightening strike with pixels, then that's a price I'll happily pay.

This wasn't our first trip up to Glacier National Park. We went 2 years ago, as a celebration for Dave earning his Master's Degree. It's about a 5 hour drive from my sister's house: that time we borrowed their second car and drove up and back in a 3 day time span. We stumbled into Two Medicine valley as our first entrance into Glacier. It's at the outer edge of Blackfoot country, and Sinopah and Rising Wolf mountains called to us before we even knew their names. I'm not sure I'll ever live anywhere but Maine, but we'll spend more time in and around Two Medicine: it is simultaneously calming and energizing. Our full day in the park was for a Red Bus tour, which would take us from East Glacier across the Going to the Sun road and back along US Route 2. We'd booked that months earlier, too, and had no way of knowing they were experiencing record snowfall. The GttS is usually open in late June, but that year record snowfall kept the road closed until July 13... and we were there July 5. We still got a wonderful tour, but it left crossing the GttS on the list.

It is no longer on the list, at least not in the same sort of way. This time we rented a car, and planned 3 full days in the park. West Glacier was our entrance point this trip-- if you're going to call someplace your favorite national park, you probably should check out the whole park. And so we did. We swam in Lake McDonald (warmer than the Atlantic at Nauset Beach, but not much) at the Apgar boat launch, drove out Route 2 (no goats at Goat Lick this time, but our falls were still there), said hello to Sinopah and headed up MT 49 towards Canada and Waterton Lake. Cate's car sickness took over, however; after we stopped for lunch at Two Sisters Diner, outside Babb, we decided to just come back through St. Mary over GttS. We were rewarded for putting her needs above our own (and probably for bringing the much needed rain the day before) by a lengthy big horn sheep sighting near Logan Pass. They grazed for a good 15 minutes, and even sparred for us for a moment. This Red Bus tour was also impacted by said rain-- we still went, but couldn't see anything but the impressive Russian laborers stonework as a barrier between the road and the mountainside. Waterton via the Red Bus next trip? Yea, that's what I was thinking too.

Which, once again, brings us back here, being rocked by this Eastbound No. 8 train. As we sat down together for dinner-- I am so thankful our meager coach seats allow us to dine with our only-slightly-posher-roomette family-- the sun came back out. We're trained rainbow finders, all of us. We saw it begin to take shape; within minutes, we were treated to the full bow, stretching out on the plains beside us. Other diners noticed eventually. The sky was a deep blue-gray, and there were still some distant lightening bolts around. My camera was back at my seat, so I cannot share it's brilliance with you. Rainbows as we're headed home are a recurring theme, and as the train wound it's way across the tracks we crossed underneath. I hope some really talented photographer was out there and captured what I knew was happening. Somewhere under the rainbow is home, and tonight we are homeward bound.

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