Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

IMG_0891 “We say there are two seasons in Saskatoon: winter and ‘construction’,” said my prairie friend Steph. The idea, of course, being that all the building and roadwork that accumulates during the long winter must be completed in the brief burst of summer. When I arrived in Saskatoon, construction season had begun. The skies were clear and the bright sun was smiling down at the flat, dusty landscape. There was reason to celebrate. In winter, temperatures colder than -30 celcius are commonplace. My mother was born in Saskatchewan and has relayed stories of locals tying a rope between their front door and their front gate in order to find their way through the yard in a blizzard. My grandfather has told me that a person ‘snowed in’ in their car would probably die – if the car was off, then of cold; and if the car was on, then of carbon monoxide poisoning.

But enough of that misery. Saskatoon in the sun was a delight and it was showing on everyone’s faces. I could only imagine the whole place covered in ice, but it showed few signs of that on the day that we walked along the South Saskatchewan River. IMG_0866 IMG_0867 IMG_0873 IMG_0874 IMG_0875 IMG_0882 IMG_0877   There is a sculpture park close to the banks. IMG_0883 IMG_0884 IMG_0888IMG_0886 The Bessborough is one of the oldest buildings in the area. Very stately. IMG_0892A beer, liquor and food festival called Top of the Hops attracted a whole lot of locals and was pretty raucous fun. As it turns out, the province has plenty of breweries and distilleries – and people who love to have a good time. Little glimpses of old-world prairie life are there, too – like the “two-step” that everybody started dancing at the end of a Friday night. I might be returning in August – the summer festivals and parties will be mostly over, but the open space and friendly spirit will surely be the same. IMG_0891

Go By Train: The Canadian

The Canadian, from Via Rail, is a train that traverses the entire Canadian expanse.

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It was to be the longest train trip I’d ever done, and I actually couldn’t wait. 35 hours, from downtown Vancouver to the outskirts of Saskatoon. 35 hours of gazing and lazing.

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I boarded in the evening but the days are getting longer, so I had a few hours of landscape-watching until I had to revert to downloaded entertainment. It was hours and hours before the first stop, in the town of Kamloops. I find the steady movement of a train so relaxing. I was even able to get a few hours of sleep, crumpled up on my two seats and covered by my coat. IMG_0766

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In the late morning we began our climb through the Canadian Rockies. There were occasional announcements from train staff of landmarks to look out for. There was the occasional flurry of excitement when a passenger thought they had seen a bear.

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I wasn’t tired at all, despite being sleep-deprived. In the viewing car passengers could see the mountains in all their postcard glory.

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It was one of the most calming experiences I’ve had. A slow plod through eternal natural wonders – the mountains high above us, oblivious to all the commotion.

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I think this is Mt Robson, the highest peak of all. (Head in the clouds.)

Our next stop was the little town of Jasper, a favourite base for skiers and climbers. I was able to get out and stretch my legs, and gulp some fresh mountain air.

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From there, it was straight on to the city of Edmonton, which we reached in the dead of night, when I was snoozing under my coat again. In the meantime the land flattened out slowly.

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And I enjoyed some on-board services.

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As the first full day on the train faded away, the passengers started getting chatty. There was a musical couple who performed country love songs live in the lounge, and received advice from an old blues singer on his way to Winnipeg. A baby-boomer couple on holiday told a story about a girl who, many years ago, fell off the train when she was having a cigarette between carriages – she had to be rescued from the wilderness in the middle of the night. Two young English women told me all about their travels, and a pair of Quebecois chaps helped me pay for my dinner (delicious, by the way), when I realised with horror that the staff would not accept debit cards. An elderly woman sitting across from me told me of her time living in Australia and New Zealand.

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This is my new country, at least for a short while, and its vastness, its stillness, the unblinking wonder of it – all of this was on display from the windows of the train.

We were all nowhere in particular, until I arrived at my destination – seemingly nothing more than a concrete slab in the middle of a huge yard.

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I had reached Saskatoon, in the prairies, having travelled for two nights and one day. I had drunk many litres of coffee and eaten a whole stack of bagels – and exhausted my supply of podcasts. Some of my new friends would stay on The Canadian for two more days, all the way east to Toronto. I wished them all the best.

Some snaps from Vancouver

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View from the Seabus

Vancouver is the loveliest of cities. Framed by the mountains and the sea; diverse, energetic and friendly even in the seedier streets. As usual I decided to explore a bit on a bike and I rode around the Stanley Park peninsula, beginning and ending at English Bay.

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Then in the afternoon I crossed over to the south side and saw a bit of Kitsilano.

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Totem poles tell a story if read from the bottom up.

Totem poles tell a story if read from the bottom up.

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Aside from gazing into the distance, there are plenty of nice things to do, like eating magnificent sushi.

When you’re not being a glutton, though, you can visit some national parks, Lynn Canyon being one example.

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It’s in the north-west and easily reachable with public transport.

Here are some cute photos from the Vancouver Aquarium, for good measure.

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Go By Train: The Amtrak Cascades

My second train ride of my trip was one that I nearly missed. By “nearly” I mean that Amtrak staff had locked up the train and were ready to go, and I practically had to beg to be allowed on.

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The Cascades goes from Seattle to Vancouver, so it brought me into Canada. It must have been a newer train than the Coast Starlight because the seats were even more comfortable and the wifi was functional. It was only a four-hour trip – my next one will be 30. More to write about then perhaps.

One I had calmed down I was able to enjoy the view.

IMG_0606IMG_0608IMG_0609IMG_0610IMG_0612IMG_0614IMG_0616IMG_0618And then I was in Canada.

The Emerald City

That’s what “they” call it.

After a rainy hiccup in Portland, my run of sunny days picked up again in Seattle. IMG_0543

These are photos that I took from the ferry to Bainbridge. The sky was so blue and clear that I could see the mountain ranges clearly, and even get a surreal glimpse of Mount Rainier.

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It was really stunning, and shortly after I came back to shore I was able to see a pink sunset over the horizon – unfortunately my camera had died at that point. Considering I had expected nothing but drizzle, I felt very blessed.

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While less colourful and diverse than California, the Pacific Northwest definitely has its charms. Seattle was a real delight. Bike-friendly, an important business centre (a lot of suits), a beautiful waterfront and plenty of cultural history to explore.

The EMP Museum was one of the more quirky museums I have been to. Instead of having a whole lot of objects on display, it seemed to have mastered the art of the “experience”. What was on display, though, were a lot of smashed guitars, mostly from Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

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remnants of guitar smashed by Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native

There were many guitars that were not smashed, too.

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Somebody recreated tall buildings of the world with Lego, and they were on display too.

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Along the waterfront is the Olympic Sculpture Park.

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Jaume Plensa’s ‘Echo’, just getting installed

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Because the weather stayed fine, and because I could, I went on a bike tour organised by my hostel.

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from Green Tortoise Hostel’s facebook page

We rode around the coastline to the little haven of Alki Beach, where there were more blue skies and more views of the mountains.

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And so I learned to love the Pacific Northwest.

Six days in Portlandia

For much of my stay in Portland, Oregon, the city looked like this.

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View from the aerial tram station

 

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And I felt like this.

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This was supposed to be super awesome but instead I was freezing and miserable and the only thing to do was to drink about it (in one of the squillions of breweries or McMenamins bars).

But when the sun was out, Portland was lush and lovely.

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Every residential street looks like this

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View from Mt Tabor

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Reservoir at Mt Tabor

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Trees and sunshine at Mt Tabor

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I took this on a bike ride through the city

In a way, it was exactly what I expected. All the young people were good-looking and inked and had matching glasses to me. They were all eating organic food and drinking craft beers. And they can all go to food trucks.

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But I just couldn’t love it. I spent a lot of time wishing I was back in sparkling California, and since I had planned a whole week to relax and gather my thoughts, I had a lot of time to dwell on it. But as much as we all rave about travel, some places are just cities that people live in and visit. Not every stop along the way has to change your life.

Some more things about Portland:

– people are calm and have a good sense of humour  – it’s “where young people go to retire”

– the beers are strong and tasty

– there is usually an early AND late Happy Hour at bars (and this includes food)

– unsurprisingly, drinking beer is a top activity – apparently it’s a brewing capital of the world

– there is a strong commitment to sustainability: my hostel was largely made of recycled materials; it’s a bike-friendly city; if you can’t finish your food at a restaurant they will automatically give you a box to take it home in

– Uber/Lyft/Sidecar – none of these things exist in Portland!

– they are proud of the TV show Portlandia and you can go to organised screenings in pubs around the place

 

 

 

Go By Train: The Amtrak Coast Starlight

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Portland Union Station

I’m a lifelong fan of train travel. I love most things about it – the steady pace (ideal for relaxing and sleeping), passing through small towns that a freeway driver would miss, and looking out the windows for hours on end. I was especially excited to take the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Oakland all the way up to Portland.

The Amtrak stations, the visual merchandise (see these posters) and even the slogan “Go By Train” all have an old-worldy feel to them, as if travelling by train in America is a way to reconnect with some kind of Golden Age. I like the idea that long-distance train travel is genteel and kind of a novelty in an age of cheap flights.

The trip took 20 hours. It was meant to take 18 but I had heard rumours of the “Starlate” being delayed so I wasn’t too surprised. We hit a tree, apparently (“tree strike”) and some drunk and rowdy passengers also had to be removed from the train.

It did seem like there were a few intoxicated and shady characters riding with us but for the most part all my fellow passengers were very pleasant. I had breakfast and lunch in the dining car and had some great conversations with a Canadian couple, an elderly lady from Argentina, a grandmother from upstate New York and a Bostonian who was enjoying his new city of Portland.

The economy class seats are pretty comfortable and roomy.

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I was certainly able to do get a good snooze. I wish the wi-fi was actually functional though.

But my favourite thing about the Coast Starlight was the view. I woke up soon after sunrise to landscapes that quite literally took my breath away (well, for a few seconds).

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I have two more train trips left on this journey – a short one on the Cascades (also Amtrak) from Seattle to Vancouver, and then a much more substantial 24 hour+ trip from Vancouver to Saskatoon on The Canadian (from Via Rail). I am practically counting down the days!

San Francisco Obsession

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Ever since I was a young nerd watching music documentaries, I’ve wanted to go to San Francisco.

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But strangely, until I got to the airport, I had forgotten all about all those hours watching VHS and dreaming about wearing tie-dye and walking through Haight-Ashbury. It wasn’t until I was settled in my temporary home that I realised. “I’m HERE!” I was so excited. I couldn’t sit still.

The next day was sunny and I walked up Valencia St, then onto Haight. The pastel houses and blue sky were so bright that I actually felt giddy. I was full of energy and it seemed like the city was, too.

My week in San Francisco was really wonderful. The people I met were all positive and interested in the world. The sun shone every day, and all the food was delicious.

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Mission

I stayed in two different rooms, because I extended my stay to a full week. They were both in the Mission, which is colourful and vibrant, and very Hispanic. I saw avocados for sale there for 79 cents! It wasn’t really near Downtown but one great point about San Francisco is that it’s quite easy to get around with public transport. You can always use Uber or Lyft as well.

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Old-school F streetcar

Fisherman’s Wharf is nice to visit for a few hours but every local knows that it’s where all the tourists hang out. I enjoyed being among all the people and next to the bay.

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I didn’t visit Alcatraz. I’ve been to a few prisons before as a tourist and find it consistently depressing. But to each their own. I found a museum of antique arcade games which you could still play for a quarter. They were creepy.

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One of my days was spent riding over the Golden Gate Bridge and I’ve already written about that. When the weather turned chilly later in the week I headed to Golden Gate Park.  IMG_0365 IMG_0362

 

You could spend days exploring the park and I guess that plenty of people do, but I went straight for De Young museum to explore their art galleries. There was a special exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s works from her time at Lake George. These paintings were compelling but I have to admit I rushed through them so I could see the rest of the museum before closing time. One California-inspired painting really stood out.

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“A Particular Kind Of Heaven” by Ed Ruscha

Anyone who has listened to the podcast 99% Invisible recently will have learnt about Sutro Baths. They are ruins of an elaborate bathing complex built in 1898. Imagine my delight when I realised that I could actually visit Sutro Baths! It was every bit as lovely as I imagined. It was windy and cold but the sea was sparkling and the air was fresh and salty.

IMG_0388 IMG_0391 IMG_0393 IMG_0396 IMG_0406My run of sunny days continued right up to the Sunday before I left, when I got up early to climb the big hill at Bernal Heights Park, which had spectacular views of the shiny city – my new favourite place.

IMG_0433 IMG_0428 IMG_0424 IMG_0438I even saw a snake. A passerby noticed it and told me that it was a gopher snake. Not very scary.

IMG_0432The people I was staying with (I am now a big fan of Airbnb) invited me to join them at the How Weird Street Faire. People danced and smoked and drank in the sun, every costume more bizarre than the last. It was great.

IMG_0439 IMG_0444 IMG_0441I hear that the Folsom Street Fair is more crazy though. Something for next time.

I left for Oakland to get my train to Portland, feeling very grateful for everything I’d seen and all the people I’d met. What a beautiful, fascinating place. It was a sad goodbye to California.

I woke up in Oregon.