Urban Reflections-Grand Rapids, MI

I love walking.  One of my favorite places to walk is urban environments.  The bigger the buildings, the more stimulating the walk, the more nuanced the lighting, and the more kaleidoscopic the people going about their day, each in their own world yet linked by the city they inhabit.  The ideal scene features a combination of buildings old and new, green park space with a few trees that dapple the early morning light on carpets of green grass, ribbons of concrete sidewalks, and rivers of asphalt.  IMG_5529 editIMG_5522 editIMG_5446 editIMG_5486IMG_5569 editIMG_5600 editIMG_5510 editIMG_5436 editIMG_5441 editIMG_5460 editIMG_5447 editIMG_5584 edit

Travel as Distraction

I’m tired.  I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan.  In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX.  All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me.  I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling.  Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life?  How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?  

Millennium Park, Chicago

I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind.  When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family.  All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport.  Nothing matters except these trivialities. 

Chicago

When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not.  It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off.  More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen.  I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said.  Which makes sense.  If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison.  And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.

Millennium Park, Chicago

But I think there’s something more going on.  When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence.  He has seen me.  And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen. 

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Lounge, somewhere in Montana

 The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement.  I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days.  Yet I was also moving.  I was going somewhere.  The scenery outside the window was changing.  The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea.  I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light.  I was stationary yet I was also in motion.  The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey.  That was it.  Life was simple.  Stay on or get off. 

North Dakota

Montana, approaching the Rockies.

Columbia River Gorge

Ferry and Space Needle, Seattle

Seattle Ferry and Olympic Mountains

Brainbridge Island, across from Seattle in Puget Sound.

Seattle Skyline from ferry.

Union Station, Seattle (no longer used as a train station).

It does rain in Seattle, though, interestingly, it receives only about 37 in. of rain per year, compared with 33 inches in Austin, TX and and 50 inches for New York City. The difference? In Seattle it drizzles year round. According to the National Park Service, the west-facing valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle, receive 12 FEET of rain per year.

Useful information.

Puget Sound

Train Station in North Dakota on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route.

Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Minneapolis: City Within a City

San José’s Nightmares: Arriving at Night in a Foreign City

I board a cab outside of San José International Airport and sit in the back seat with the windows rolled down.  As I wend my way through Costa Rica’s sprawling capital the wind clutches at me with ethereal fingers that smell of car exhaust and a mysterious odor I can’t quite place.  It’s an odor that is unique to every city.  When I return home after a long time away, the wind and the scent of home it carries with it collide with me as I leave the airport.  The weight of home bears down on me in humid gusts saturated with a lifetime of memories.  Home wraps its airy arms around me and knocks me about like an old friend annoyed that we’ve fallen out of touch.  In like manner the San José wind buffets me, screams at me, and with these gestures and its smell of otherness it is the first of the elements to announce that I’ve arrived somewhere new.  “I don’t know you,” it says.

A soft layer of clouds presses down on the city like a padded lid.  The cottony sky glows red, as if the city below were aflame and on the verge of destruction.  Mountains surround San José and stand black against the reddened sky.  Through the window I see pedestrians scampering across busy streets.  They run, they pause, they dodge headlights.  Somehow they manage to ford the rivers of traffic.  Cars honk and squeal their brakes.  Police sirens wail in the distance.  I pass block after block and they all look the same to me, with the same ten story concrete buildings, the same plazas, the same people milling about, the same bands playing the same music in a never-ending repetition of the same park.  I imagine that the city sleeps and that through the windows of the cab I’m seeing visions of its nightmares. 

At night the whole world shrinks around me.  My only reality is the city itself.  It’s as if I’ve woken up beneath a thick quilt and in my hands I hold only a dim flashlight.  I may point the light in any direction but I will see only the checkered underside of the quilt and the red glow that the quilt reflects back at me.  I don’t know where the quilt ends and where the outside world begins.  I may thrash about.  I may crawl first in one direction and then another, yet the edges of the quilt will elude me.

I arrive at my hostel and I fall sleep on my bunk.  Monsters populate my dreams and strange faces parade before my closed eyes.  Morning comes and the city wakes with me.  Its demons retreat into the shadows that pool beneath buildings and trees and lamp posts.  Slowly the sun rises and dapples the urban landscape with light.  It splatters reds, blues, whites, and yellows on those same ten story buildings from the night before.  Parks glow green and trees spindle upward toward the sun.  Plazas and the people milling about them acquire detail and stand out from one another.  The sky no longer presses down on the city; now it soars and opens clear and blue above me.  The mountains that loomed darkly last night now cradle the city in their verdant lap.  San José makes sense now.  It exists in the wider world.  What I thought were its demons dancing around me were in reality my own demons projected on the unknown.   

I feel confusion and menace of this sort on arriving in any new city at night.  The place could be Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Lima.  Maybe I’m walking from a Greyhound station in Portland, Oregon or stepping off the train in Fargo, North Dakota.  In each case, at night, I feel the weight of the unknown bearing down on me.  The slight twinge of fear I feel on these occasions is electrifying. 

San José, Costa Rica

 

Park, San José

 

Site of the old San José Airport; now el Parque Sabana

 

Concrete Entanglement in the Lone Star State

You can read the identity of a place in its transit system. How people get around a city says everything about who they are, the nature of their relationships, their shopping habits, how they have fun, even where most of them come from and where they’re going. If someone asked me to choose one feature of Texas that is emblematic of its identity, I would point not to its capitol building, whose dome looms larger than that of the U.S. capitol, nor to cowboy hats or oil rigs or the ubiquitous longhorn. No, I would point to its highways that unravel outward from every urban center and ribbon the state from east to west and north to south. I would rattle off the major interchanges, the nodes of this sprawling vehicle transmission system: the “High Five” in Dallas, the I-35/290 interchange in South Austin, the Beltway 8 Interchange in Houston. These knots of crisscrossing freeways rise from the Texas landscape as cathedrals might in many of the world’s great cities. And although they may be primarily utilitarian, they are also a profession of faith in and allegiance to a way of life, to a culture of cars and commerce and absolute freedom of movement.

A degree of artistry suffuses these monuments to life by car, most visibly in the symbol of Texas chiseled repeatedly in the massive concrete supports that hold flyovers aloft. Whereas elsewhere one might best appreciate the scope of a metropolis from a hill or from across a majestic river or lake, here, in the Lone Star State, a similar view may as likely be had from an overpass climbing and curving several hundred feet into the clear Texas sky.

These interlacing symbols of the Texas state of mind are by no means static. They evolve over time, and new ones grow annually out of the earth, as if vast tectonic forces continually heaved them skyward like mountains rising from the plains. The beginnings of an interchange are messy. Sounds of jackhammers and earth movers fracture the air. Colossal concrete pillars litter the terrain and dust wafts in the wind. A cacophony of horns honking and brakes squealing forms part of this chaotic birthing process, until finally a finished work emerges and the vitality of a populace flows through and brings the steel and concrete giant to life.

To some the highways of Texas may be a blight on the landscape, walls of traffic and noise that segregate one part of a city from another. They foster anonymity, lack of cohesion and a feeling of perennial displacement among the population. The impersonality of urban sprawl prevented me from ever feeling kinship with the DFW metroplex. I was always a stranger here, and the city, a clumsy behemoth only dimly self-aware, never cared that I existed. Yet since I was a little boy growing up in Austin I’ve seen our sprawling highway infrastructure as representing possibility, vitality and the irrational exuberance of a state on the move. Driving I-75 through Dallas or I-35 out of Austin I felt as if I was joining a society of nomads thronging along an asphalt ribbon of nowhere, bounded by somewhere, leading anywhere, so that the highway was an interstice between states of permanence. As a tree-hugging conservationist I’ll always argue for more trains, subways and denser urban spaces, yet the cloverleaf interchange will forever remain an entrancing symbol of the frenetic energy of my home state.