Thursday, December 16, 2010

Heading West

Our six-month adventure is quickly coming to an end.  We started, you will recall, with a four-month-long bike ride from Toledo to Washington DC on a fairly indirect route through the Northeast, then stayed still, at night anyway, for a month in the nation's capital.  Now it's time for the final two chapters.

We headed west on the Capitol Ltd, an Amtrak train that pulled out of Washington Union Station at 4:45 pm and served us dinner in the diner as we crossed the Potomac at historic Harper's Ferry.  We woke up the next morning in the old steelmaking heartland of northern Indiana, but many of the steel plants that filled the area between our tracks and Lake Michigan are now underutilized or even abandoned, as steelmaking has moved elsewhere, especially overseas. 

After a hearty breakfast on the train we hopped off in Chicago and stowed our carry-on luggage in the special lounge just for sleeper passengers.  We didn't have a lot of time until our next train, so we walked a mile across downtown to the Marshall Fields department store, now relabeled Macy's.  It's hard to think of it as anything but Marshall Fields, however, because it is the most elegant department store we've ever been in, with dramatic touches like this five-story atrium with a Tiffany tiled dome ceiling.

Shortly after we finished lunch in Chicago's Union Station, we boarded the Texas Eagle for the 29-hour trip to Austin TX to spend Thanksgiving with Jeff's daughter Rebecca and her husband Sean.  As the train paused in Dallas we got out to stretch and enjoy the warm Texas weather, almost but not quite oblivious to a grassy knoll behind those trees and the Texas Book Depository Building to the right that Lee Harvey Oswald made infamous in 1963.

Rebecca is now an ABD, "all but dissertation," at the University of Texas.  She is intensively studying "BP 1," an algae that was first identified in the hot springs of Beppu, Japan.  Because it is thermophylic or heat-loving, it can survive conditions that generally kill off potential competing algae, making it a good candidate to host production of other substances.  While there's a lot of talk about using algae to produce diesel fuel, Rebecca is looking more at their potential use to produce isoprenoids,  lipids that are key components of essential oils like menthol, eucalyptol and taxol, the cancer-fighting compound.  Natural rubber is a complex type of isoprenoid.  The potential for her BP-1 is certainly there.

We got a look at her lab, where she has become the envy of some of her biology colleagues for the engineering skills she picked up in her undergraduate Chem E days.  She built this biological reactor to grow BP-1 and to test the effect of different wavelengths of light on its growth, for example.  We really got into the research, and at one point Louise even donned a lab coat and pitched in with cleaning some of the lab equipment.  Doesn't she look positively scientific?

Following in her dad's footsteps, Rebecca and Sean have sold one of their cars and are now a one-pickup and two-bike family, except that their bikes are motorbikes.  Don't worry, she doesn't really ride her bike this way, she just rested for a moment after loading her bike onto the pickup rather than ride it home while we went in the truck.

For Thanksgiving we headed an hour out of Austin to Sean's mother's place, where we were joined by his sister Catherine and Catherine's husband John and daughter Hannah.  Bad, bad Jeff forgot to get a photo of mom Ginny, even after she reminded him that she is one of our most loyal blog readers.  Sorry -- we blame it on that stupefaction so many of us are familiar with after that traditional feast of turkey, gravy and the works.  You can see Ginny in the mirror in that photo of us, but that doesn't really count . . .  On the way back to Austin we did stop for the festival of lights in Granite Shoals, and one last photo.

Although it wasn't Sean's weekend to have his daughters Ivy and Zoe from a previous marriage, he did arrange for them to join us for one day so we could catch up with them.  We spent the day wandering about Austin, including a visit to the state capitol building.  We spent a week with them last spring, and it was good to see them again!

We concluded our visit with Rebecca and Sean by heading down to San Antonio for two days.  Of course we saw the Alamo, though we did not take the full tour, having done that on our last visit.  You can wander about the grounds for free, and we were impressed with this live oak that was about 40 years old when it was transplanted here a century ago.  We were also impressed with a way for us to make money bicycling!   Check out the rig this enterprising fellow has created.  He told us as he sat outside the Alamo that he has so many bookings he's built more of these and hired others to ride them around near the entrances to parks, events and tourist sites, advertising with the billboard while handing out fliers and talking to potential customers to give it a personal touch.

We also visited the Roman Catholic Cathedral, built in 1738 and now the oldest in the U.S.  The pope actually visited here on one of his visits around the world.  As it is only a short ways from the Alamo, it was selected as the final resting place for some of the most famous men from the lost battle of the Alama, as you can see.

We also spent a lot of time walking along the Riverwalk.  Oh, what a glorious place this is!  It was built near the end of the Depression as a way of creating jobs and helping save the river, and it has proved so popular that it has been extended several times,  including a long extension northwards that opened last year, and major construction going on right now to take it further to the south as well.

 We just had to wonder, how many tourists do they have to fish out of the river each year, given those unfenced walkways?  It appears that the river is healthy, given the birds like the lone snowy egret or the trio of cormorants that hang out along the river, and one more that we saw with a catch about to become a meal.

We took that northwards riverwalk extension to the San Antonio Museum of Art, in keeping with our recent course of self-study, especially of American painters.  We particularly enjoyed this nice Hudson River School piece by Asher Durand done in 1852, entitled Haystack Mountain, Vermont, and a painting in an Impressionist style by someone we had not previously heard of, Ernest Lawson, entitled, High Bridge, Harlem River (1912).  The scene, in fact, is the point where the Croton Aqueduct that we hiked in September crosses the Harlem River to enter Manhattan. 

 The museum also had an Egyptian exhibition going on, which inspired Rebecca to look her pharaonic best for us.

As in California and Florida, the Spaniards built a string of missions to Christianize the local Indians.  Five of the missions still survive in the San Antonio area, the Alamo plus four others that still function as parish churches, although they were abandoned for many years in between their founding in the 1700s and now.  We visited two of them, Mission Concepcion and Mission San Jose.  The church in the former has been nicely restored, even though other parts of the mission are in varying states of repair and decay.

A major function of the missions was to gather Indians together to provide them protection from their enemies and to ensure that they stayed on the path to Christianity, a route that proved rocky indeed.  At San Jose we could see what a typical family quarters were like -- we're looking out the window of one of the two rooms each Indian family was provided, and the second photo shows the rest of the quarters.  "Snug," a realtor might call it.  Perhaps the most impressive part of Mission San Jose is the now roofless and floorless area that was once the rooms for the padres.

Rebecca and Sean dropped us off in the King William area not too far from the train station where we got in one last walk waiting for our train.  The walk was fine through blocks of impressive Victorian mansions, but we had a problem of too many trains at the train station.  The Texas Eagle arrives from Chicago about 10 pm and waits for the westbound Sunset Ltd. from New Orleans.   Amtrak joins the two trains together and they leave as one train about 5 in the morning.  Unfortunately, one night a week the Chicago train arrives about the same time as one headed in the opposite direction, and it blocked us from boarding until midnight.  At least we had our room waiting for us when we did get on.  It was odd trying to go to sleep without the rocking of the train, but we managed.

We followed the border fairly closely at times, and even ran briefly right along the Rio Grande where we could see Mexico yards away.  Crossing the Pecos River is also an exciting sight.  Many more miles were on a straight line through the desert where the only time the train turns is when it moves a few feet to one side into a siding (this was shot from the last car, by the way -- they weren't willing to let us ride the cowcatcher up front).

At last we were up for an early breakfast passing through Palm Springs just after dawn, and we slid into Los Angeles Union Station right on time.  A sonorous Salvation Army band was there to greet us, as was Louise's son Brian.  It wasn't long before we had unloaded our things at the apartment we've rented for the month of December and met grandson Cedro for the first time, along with his mom Ardith.

We'll write one more post for this year's adventure as soon as we get back to Seattle, to tell you all about our time in SoCal, or southern California to you non-Californians, and especially about darling, 4-month-old Cedro.