Saturday, June 25, 2011

Best-Laid Plans

One of the problems of retirement is that you sometimes have too much time to do things.  Even though we've stayed busy this past Spring auditing Modern Chinese History at the University of Washington, we've had lots of time to plan our Summer bike trip and Fall trip to China.  In fact, this is one of the best-planned, or at least most-planned, trips we've had.  We even got the tandem and the panniers (saddle bags for the bike) down to King Street Station on Monday, a whole 30 hours before our train was set to leave.  That evening as we ate supper we saw the Empire Builder make its daily run past our condo.  "Well, good to know the bike and panniers are on it, and 24 hours from now we'll be on it too."

Granted, it was an hour late. The Empire Builder has been running late for the past week as they catch up with the confusion left behind from a 2-week closure of the line that ended June 16, caused by flooding near Devils Lake ND. We were a little nervous about how late our own train would get into Chicago. Every train since the 16th has been 5 1/2 hours or more late.

Then, at 7:55 pm that Monday night, "oops."  No, make that, BIG OOPS!!  We received a robo-call from Amtrak.  "No train to Chicago.  No alternative arrangement available.  So sorry."

Some panic ensued.

By 9 pm we had a Plan B.  By 11 pm most of it was implemented.  By the next morning the rest of it was in place, but it wasn't until Saturday at 7:55 pm that we were finally able to stop holding part of our breath, as we stood in the St. Louis Amtrak station and watched our tandem and the box with our panniers come out of the baggage car.

The first part of our plan was to fly to Chicago, and Expedia found the last pair of cut-price tickets to the Windy City leaving SeaTac at 2:40 pm on Tuesday, 2 hours earlier than the train would have left. Our tenants Vic and Janice Palmieri had previously volunteered to drive us to King St. Station, and they were happy to extend the offer a few miles further to SeaTac. We also agreed to move up their arrival at the condo by an hour to have an earlier lunch get-together with them. The only other time we've met them face-to-face was a similar meeting a year ago, also over lunch at the condo, just before we took off for last year's trip.

Our plane dropped down to Phoenix for an hour (which the Palmieris left a week ago by car) then headed to Chicago for a midnight arrival at O'Hare.  That's only 10 pm on Seattle time, but when we reached Room 508 of our airport hotel we discovered the bed was unmade.  The front desk blamed it on confusion from a power outage earlier that evening (indeed, there were two small tornados that night not far away), but since it was their very last room, we had to become overly familiar with their lobby until housekeeping could service the room.  It was almost midnight in Seattle and really, really late in Chicago when we finally turned out the lights.

Then came the pluses of Plan B, and they were tremendous ones.  Becky and Sean gave us courage to try the "Name Your Own Price" routine at, and we scored big!  We booked two nights at the Hyatt Regency, a 4-star hotel right on the Chicago River at the start of the Miracle Mile, for less than half what we would have paid with a senior discount. Better yet, we now had a feast of time to visit with Louise's son Brian, his wife Ardy, and our grandson Cedro!!! How cool is that!!!  So to start the photographic side of this year's journey, here are Cedro, Ardy and Louise taking in the view from our room on the 34th floor, and us playing hide and seek with Cedro on the bed and the two of us ducking down below the edge of the bed and popping up elsewhere.  Well, Cedro thinks that's pretty cool, even if we look fairly ridiculous.

The view later that day and again at night were close to awesome:

Brian, Ardy and Cedro are in Chicago, as we explained in our last blog entry, so that Brian can work on David Henry Hwang's new play Chinglish.  We saw his play Golden Child a dozen years ago at the Seattle Rep, and you may know of him from other works, particularly M. Butterfly, which won him the 1988 Tony award for best new play.  Brian would love to be performing on stage in Chinglish, but for now has the more challenging and less rewarding job of being understudy for 3 of the actors, actually 4 roles since one actor handles 2 roles.  And did we mention that more than half his lines are in Mandarin Chinese?  The play is about the problem of being understood in another language, and much of it is spoken in Chinese, with supertitles projected over the actors showing what was actually said in Chinese, as opposed to what the interpreter translates it to.  We saw a few lines performed in a teaser film, and it looks like it will be very, very funny.

We're going to be back in Chicago in 3 weeks, and Jeff's daughter Becky will be there part of the time we're in town, so we decided not to see Chinglish now but to wait to see it fresh with Becky.  However, we did have the opportunity to meet David Henry Hwang while visiting Brian during a break from rehearsals at the Goodman Theatre, and to see yet another of his plays, Yellow Face, which is also running right now in Chicago at another theater.  We'll tell you more about Chinglish after we see it next month.  And who knows, we might yet see Brian on stage.  Backstage the theater has a Hall of Fame for understudies who ended up on stage, listing how much advance notice each one had.  Most had a few hours, some a day or two.  At least one had all of ten minutes.

So for two days we hung out with Ardy and Cedro and had supper together with Brian during his break between rehearsals and the preview performances that have already started.  On the second day, we were joined by Ardy's sister Arlene, who also answers to "Ging."  She came in for a Cedro fix, and was rarely far from her beloved nephew.  She also got a great group photo of the rest of us at lunch that day.

Ardy was also on the spot with her camera, and caught two more shots of Cedro getting a kick out of 'peekaboo' games, the second time with Cedro himself using his dad's hat to 'disappear' and 'appear' again.  The third shot is another nice family shot we couldn't resist posting.

On Friday we took Amtrak to St. Louis, which was our original plan. And how about the bike? Well, just before the train left on Monday, the baggage folks realized either that there was a problem down the tracks, or that there might be, and they held back our boxes with the tandem and the panniers. Whew! Otherwise it would have headed to Havre, Montana and turned around for a ride right back to Seattle, getting back about the time we were in St. Louis.

We reached the baggage room early last Tuesday, and they agreed to put the bike and panniers on a train to Sacramento to transfer to the California Zephyr to Chicago, then to the Texas Eagle to St. Louis.  And, sure enough, at 7:55 pm this warm Saturday evening there it was, coming from the baggage car to the baggage room, where we will be reunited with it tomorrow morning.

We did have one day in St. Louis.  We visited the area near the Gateway Arch (without going up it) in the afternoon, but spent the first 2/3 of the day at the wonderful SLAM, the St. Louis Art Museum.  Here are two paintings that relate to this area:  John Steuart Curry's 1935 The Mississippi, particularly apt since it's flooding (in North Dakota, actually) that caused the big Amtrak interruption this week; and George Caleb Bingham's Raftsmen Playing Cards, painted in 1847.

Two other works that particularly caught our fancy were John McCrady's remarkable 1937 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and a painting called A Road by the Palisades done by Ernest Lawson in 1911 that we immediately recognized as being of the Hudson Valley from our bike trip along the Hudson last summer.

Well, it's time for us to get on that open road.  We'll write next from somewhere in Illinois.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Warming Up

It's been a cold, wet winter and spring in Seattle -- highs have been 4 to 5 degrees cooler than normal, lows 2-3 degrees cooler, and rainfall has been quite a bit above normal.  None of which is conducive to biking.  Ironically, it does give one lots of excuses to stay inside and plan new trips, and we've indeed planned another hum-dinger.  It's in four main parts: 10 weeks biking through Illinois and Wisconsin; a 3 week cruise through Alaska to China; 6 weeks travelling about China; and 6 weeks once again down in Santa Monica.  How much planning have we been doing?  Let's just say that this shot is of only the books we had out on China for one of the weeks we were working on the trip . . .  Then there's Illinois, Wisconsin, more parts of China, and a whole 'nother world of research on the web, and it's a wonder we even knew what the weather was doing out there in the first part of this year.

ChinglishThis year's travel was built around three special events in our kids' lives.  The Midwest Meander Bike Trip (as we've officially named it) brings us mid-trip to Chicago, where Louise's son Brian is working on a new play by David Henry Hwang, Chinglish (that's the Goodman Theatre's graphic for the play on the right). 

The trip through China was inspired by the fact that Jeff's son Matt has been assigned for a year to work in Dalian, a city on the coast of China about 175 miles west of North Korea and about 300 miles ESE of Beijing. 

The return to Santa Monica is another chance to see Brian and his family when they've returned home from his gig in Chicago, but also a special opportunity to spend time with Louise's daughter Lisa and family.  Lisa just received tenure at Cornell University, and is spending her sabbatical year doing research at USC and UCLA.  We'll return to the same apartment we rented last December, and Lisa has found a place near UCLA that will be twenty minutes away from our place by bus or by bike. 

Our fourth child, Jeff's daughter Rebecca, is also part of the plan.  She's coming to Chicago right when we're there and will go see Chinglish with us.  She's also working on plans to bring husband Sean stepdaughters Ivy and Zoe to Santa Monica for Christmas vacation week.  Matt may also come from Dalian that week.  If it all comes together, it will actually be the first time we've had all four kids and their spouses and kids together in the same place at the same time.  We're keeping the fingers crossed!

Rebecca and Sean actually made it to Seattle this past March, followed by a trip together with us down to LA on the Coast Starlight that coincided with Spring Break. Rebecca picked up Jeff's love of trains a long time ago -- she, her brother Matt and Jeff did an 8,000-mile trip from Seattle to Boston to DC to Albuquerque to Seattle when they were 8 and 5 years old, respectively -- but Sean has not been on a long-distance Amtrak train before, and quite enjoyed the experience. While in LA the four of us visited of course with Brian, Ardy and grandson Cedro and enjoyed a nice sidewalk mezza at a Mediterranean restaurant in Marina del Rey.

We also enjoyed a family visit from Louise's brother David and his charming sons Charlie and Christian. We visited Pike Place Market and this life-sized picture of a guy who makes 6'4" Jeff seem pretty tiny. We hope to find the life-sized statue of Robert Wadlow in Alton Illinois two weeks from now, on our bike trip. Jeff likes to find folks he can look up to.   Christian used some allowance money at Pike Place Market to buy his first gyroscope, which you can see him trying out on his brother's knee.
When it warmed up above 70° for the second time this year last week -- that's right, in June! -- we decided to warm up for our Midwest Meander by taking a 5-day spin around parts of Puget Sound.  Here are some highlights starting with the Seattle skyline as seen from the Washington State Ferry when we arrived at Bainbridge Island:

The next day we crossed the 2-mile-long Hood Canal Floating Bridge for the 20th or 30th time, but for the first time since it was recently rebuilt.  It was always an intimidating obstacle to travel on the Olympic Peninsula due to its narrow shoulders, but no more!

As we approached Port Townsend on the Larry Scott Trail, we stopped for a photo of town.  Wait, over there, to the side, that's Mount Rainier, 97 miles away as the crow flies according to our map!  Whew, scenery all over the place!

To get ready for summer, we tried out 3 beds in 3 motels, but our best night was visiting Jim and Anita in Port Townsend, who provided us a most comfortable guest room and a great cook-out supper.  We met them multiple times coming up the East Coast in 2008, us on our tandem and them in their cabin cruiser making its way up the Intracoastal Waterway -- check out our blog entries from February through May.  They have a newer, bigger boat now, and have designs to head north from Port Townsend this summer.  Anita had to take off after dinner when her daughter thought that it was time for baby #2, but in the morning we found out that it was a false alarm (as it turns out, four days early).  So only Jim was there to send us off, wearing his alma mater t-shirt from the best-named state college in America. 
Taking the ferry across Puget Sound to Whidbey Island we got great views of the mill outside Port Townsend with the Olympic Mountain Range behind, and of lots of boaters out for some Sunday morning exercise in front of downtown.  The third photo is of Fort Worden, on the edge of Port Townsend.  The business end of the fort -- the guns -- were hidden in that woodsy hillside, behind massive stone walls.  Fortunately, never used.  The guns are now gone and the fort is a state park with a youth hostel that presents a series of slide lectures every January and February called "Winter Wanderlust."  We'll be there next February to give our slide talk on "Hiking and Biking New Zealand."

Later that day we crossed the dramatic Deception Pass Bridge, actually two bridges, with the south span in the distance crossing Deception Pass to Pass Island, and the closer one spanning Canoe Pass.  The shot of Louise on the south span shows some little ants on the beach below.  Those are people 180 feet below us, and the tide looks like it's ripping.  It gets as high as 9-10 knots when there's a good tide differential, one of the most exciting tidal passages in the U.S., in fact!

Our last excitement for the warm-up trip was crossing this old railroad trestle near Anacortes, now part of the 3½-mile long Tommy Thompson Trail.  While stopped to enjoy the ocean air and look at Mt. Constitution 20 miles away in the center of the photo, we suddently realized that there was something out of the ordinary in the water -- several harbor seals!  They're elusive little buggers.  They stay on top long enough for you to see them and turn your camera toward them, then poof! before you've focused they're out of sight in the deep water, who knows where, not surfacing for ages (15 minutes is not at all unusual).  But one paused just long enough for his portrait to get taken, just for you.

We'll have lots to tell you along the way about the Midwest, about Chinglish and Brian's challenging role with the play, about our not-so-slow boat to China, and about China itself.  For now, we'll give you three maps as a preview:  first, the Midwest Meander.  Green lines are bike trails, red lines roads.  Trying to link as many rail-trails together as we could while also seeing interesting places in the Midwest, we think we'll do about 2,000 miles, perhaps as much as 40% of them on trails.

Since we're always looking for alternatives to the tin can experience of flying, this Princess cruise got our attention as soon as we thought about visiting China in the Fall of 2011.  We'll give you the full report sometime after our September 17 sailing.

Finally the trip through China.  For that one, the cruise to China via Vladivostok Russia and Busan South Korea is blue, train travel is green, flights are lavendar (just two, from Dalian to Beijing and from Shanghai to Hong Kong), and then that light blue line is for a 3-day cruise down the Yangtze through the famous Three Gorges.  All of the cities we have overnights in are underlined in red. 

Come back often -- we'll be at this 'til the end of the year!  And now for the real "warming up."  Seattle is set to have its fourth and fifth days over 70° next weekend.  This time of year, temperatures like that are considered a cold spell where we climb off Amtrak next week.  St. Louis, here we come!