3 days on a train – Amtrak, Portland-DC

Straight up, I will admit to a fib. This trip should have been 3 days on two trains. 2 days to go from Portland to Chicago, then a tight 1h45m connection onto a different train, and into Washington the next day. I had only made a provisional booking in DC, reasoning that the connection might be too tight.

Sunset in Montana
Sunset in Montana.

America is a huge country, with a large railway system, but one which is far from serving everywhere. The route I took, across the top of the country via Montana and North Dakota, stops at some very small places, ignoring some larger ones to the South – though you can connect to them via buses. This quirk, though all a part of the massively wasteful ‘drive to here, errand, drive to there, errand, drive to this friend, drive to that friend’ American lifestyle, means that the trains are an oddity, and that makes for a great atmosphere. On each train I have been on, conductors have walked the length of the train, chatting and laughing with passengers, making jokes and generally keeping people entertained. They will even wander through after a few hours just to check if “everyone alright down here?” It’s pretty great, and even the reported presence of a screamer in the observation car, and people getting on the train in the early hours and chatting, couldn’t spoil it.

Food given to me
Food, and bag, given to me by kindly fellow passengers.

I had the cheapest possible ticket, $186 to go across the country in coach. Those seats are massive, and the leg room is enormous, but it still isn’t a patch on a sleeper. That said, I was lucky enough to have no one next to me for the first couple of nights (other than a sketchy lady, but she occupied her journey by walking the length of the train, seeing if anyone would front her money on the promise of taking a loaded debit card from her) and so with the leg rests (yes!) stretched, I could curl onto a makeshift bed. The seats recline, but that doesn’t suit me so well.

Murals in a small town
Murals in a small town.

I was right in the mood for the trip. I think you have to be, really, otherwise it must seem an awfully long time. As it was, with power available at the seat, plenty of time to use and a big bag of food from Safeway in Portland – which is only a few minutes’ walk from Union Station – I was set, and pitied the people who got off a mere 6 hours later.

I was mostly happy at my seat, though I did get a reassuringly expensive can of Budweiser from the cafe – 330ml, $5.50 and sit in the observation car. If you want to talk and have quiet neighbours, that car or making a reservation for lunch/dinner will probably sort you out. Plus people are generally up for chatting. An Amish girl got on halfway through, and did not join in with the conductor’s light-hearted “Broken arm? Have you been taking on the boys?” but talked for a little while with a gentleman who walked past with a coffee and stopped to ask her about the different religious groups in the area. It’s okay to talk – I will miss that, back in the UK.

As Thursday morning passed, I realised we were some way behind schedule. We’d stopped in the night, and there was an ambulance parked outside. “Oh, probably someone died,” said one of my neighbours. Then floods in Wisconsin meant there was some doubt over whether we’d get through, communicated by the train’s announcer emphasising that “we are being told that we will get through”. Well, yes. None of us had doubted it until you seemed to. At any rate, that was a slow bit, and then we screeched to a halt in Pewaukee, with a couple of policemen mooching past the train to check something out.

All of that added up to that Chicago connection being too tight. And that was hugely to my benefit. Announcements assured us that Amtrak would be on the case, but wouldn’t decide much till we got to Milwaukee. I received my new ticket, for the same train on the next day, long before that, via email. Then when we arrived – 3-4 hours late – I joined a queue at passenger services to be offered a room at Swissotel, taxis there and back (no thanks – under 2 miles, I’ll have a walk in Chicago – I was one of the first off the train, early in the queue, so was still at the hotel by 9.15pm) and a $10 food voucher for the station’s food court. All in all, that’s the cost of my ticket returned. Plus it made for a much better itinerary, with a proper bed for the night and a day to wander round Chicago’s waterfront in the sun. Had I booked that itinerary, though, I’d have paid for the hotel stay, and probably more for a split ticket, too. A huge bonus.

 

WA – Nooksack falls, Bagley Lake loop, Artist Point and the Old Growth forest

Thanks to generous hosts, I had use of a car for a couple of days. They have just returned from their own travels – we met in Laos – so didn’t fancy more sightseeing, and I was free to make my own way to the area around Mt Baker. I had a list of highlights to see, though, so got on with it.

First up, the Ranger station. There are a few info boards, though the most useful things are the machine to allow you to pay for a permit ($5 per day) and the chance to get a map. A chance I forwent, while a ranger was occupied explaining how to get to Nooksack falls in great detail to a nervous visitor, but still.

Douglas Fir, Ranger station, Glacier town
Douglas Fir, Ranger station, Glacier town.

Nooksack falls are easy to find, and a short stroll from the car park. The falls are pretty, the colour of the water above them even more so.

Nooksack falls
Nooksack falls.
Green river above Nooksack falls
Green river above Nooksack falls.

I was directed to Artist Point, at the top of the road up, but stopped earlier than that, and walked round parts of the Wild Goose, Bagley Lakes and Chain Lakes trails.

Bagley Lakes loop
Bagley Lakes loop.
Bagley Lakes loop
Bagley Lakes loop.
View out over the valley
View out over the valley.

Smoke and clouds in the air

The smoke, from wildfires in Canada, was clearer, but sun intermittent and clouds in sight.

Me and the rocks
Me and the rocks.
Clouds low on the mountains
Clouds low on the mountains.

It is possible to walk up to Artist Point, but I drove and just walked a few kms around and up. The views, despite the clouds hiding Mt Baker itself (other than sun reflecting off snow in one place), were fabulous.

View South from my highest point
View South from my highest point, Artist Point.
Ski area, Heather Meadows
Ski area, Heather Meadows. Which sounds like a person’s name, and must be, but here is the place name, too.
Picture lake
Picture lake. 500m to stroll round it. Wild blueberries all over.
Old-growth forest
Old-growth forest. Just before (N)/after (S) mile marker 44.

Walking from Fairhaven to Bellingham, Washington State

Performing Arts, WWU
Performing Arts, Western Washington University
View from WWU, Bellingham
View from WWU, Bellingham.
Flower bed, WWU
Flower bed, WWU.
Alternative library, Bellingham
Alternative library, Bellingham.
Berry, USA
Berry, USA.
Tree with mirror squares attached
Tree with mirror squares attached, Sehome.
Community garden, alternative library, Bellingham
Community garden, alternative library, Bellingham.
Sehome hill arboretum trail
Sehome hill arboretum trail.
Fairhaven runners, shop
Fairhaven runners, shop.

Fairhaven waterfront

Bench! Fairhaven
Bench! Fairhaven.
Dog pub, Fairhaven
Dog pub, Fairhaven.
Fairhaven marine park
Fairhaven marine park.

Fairhaven marine park

Dog pub, Fairhaven
Dog pub, Fairhaven.
Fairhaven mural
Fairhaven mural.
Eclipse bookstore
Eclipse bookstore, a haven of old and new books.
Back of Eclipse books
Back of Eclipse books – a deck.
Sunset over an info block
Sunset over an info block.

Sunset, boulevard parkJazz on the boulevard, Bellingham

Seagulls sit on posts
Seagulls sit on posts, coastal railway in background.
Orange ball in the sky
Orange ball in the sky (camera makes it white).

Orange sun reflection over the sea

Coastal trail, Bellingham
Coastal trail, Bellingham.
Deer
A deer emerged from under the boardwalk.
McDonald's light table - touch sensitive
McDonald’s light table – touch sensitive.

Life in a community, Salt Spring Island

I picked Salt Spring Island on a whim. Canada is, or seems, less expensive than the US, so I was looking to save money, and not to stay in the city, Victoria. Beyond that, I had few criteria, so spotting a cheap bunk bed option on AirBnB that would allow me to hop on a ferry and see somewhere new was a win. There is no sting in this tale – Salt Spring Island was everything I might have hoped for, and more.

A view of the community. Trees, fire pit, cars
A view of the community. Trees, fire pit, cars.

The community is a farm, though they don’t seem to grow massive amounts of food. Enough to use themselves, perhaps, without selling great quantities, though there is a farm store out the front. Paying guests, staying for varying amounts of time, bring in cash, while others join for the community atmosphere, with meditation at least once a day, a sharing circle on a Monday evening, potluck dinner on a Sunday and other activities depending on who is there. Ju-jitsu on the Tuesday, for instance.

People are friendly and respectful, with the sharing circle there to allow for venting and self discovery. The potluck dinner is another excuse to talk to people, not that much is needed. Some of the longer-term residents – other than the owner, I met one who had been there for three years, working locally – take a while to warm up to newbies, as visitors wash through all the time, but none were unfriendly.

It’s also a great place from which to explore the island. Doing so is easier with transport; it’s not huge, so eminently cyclable, so long as you are not averse to some hill work. Hitch-hiking works, generally, so long as you can take rejection. And there are buses, though maybe not many per day. At least their sporadic nature helps the locals not see hitch-hikers as total freeloaders. I had to wait a little, but found it straightforward enough to get lifts to Ganges, the main town. Fulford, which has a couple of restaurants and a small grocery store, is 2.5km away, which makes for a decent walk. Particularly as it is downhill. And I ran to Ruckle park, chilled out by the water for an hour and ran back; it’s a great island to run round, hills and quiet roads with drivers well prepared to move over and give space to other road users. There are a number of short hiking trails, too, to give some variety.

The island has 9 fresh water lakes, all of which you can swim, paddle, kayak and so on in. No motorised transport is allowed as they provide the drinking water, so each is a little oasis of calm. Less confident swimmers should take a friend, as at some there may be little infrastructure and the water is murky. I swam in Weston, which is lovely – there’s just one entry point, near to house no. 740. Usually there are a few cars there to mark the spot. And Cusheon is larger, and is a km or so walk from a junction. I mention it because that is a natural junction for drivers to drop you if you are heading for Stewart Road rather than the West of the island or Fulford.

I made sure to join in with all the activities I could, had a fabulous time talking to people from around the world, and left only after hugging everyone in sight.

 

Hitch-Hiking around Salt Spring Island

Salt Spring Island is just to the North of Vancouver Island, a ferry ride away from Swartz Bay, which is itself an hour plus bus ride from Victoria. Not a difficult trip, just one for which to allow some time. Ferries leave frequently, see www.bcferries.com (Southern Gulf islands) for info about times and prices. I left the hostel at 11 and was in Swartz Bay in plenty of time to get a ticket and hop on the 1.10pm ferry. Just be sure to find your own way to the berth; the ferry to Vancouver (Tsawwassen) is the big event, so most people wait for that. Don’t be sucked in.

 

 

The island is just over 70 square miles; small enough to cycle around, though be prepared for some hills and narrow roads. I walked up to my accommodation, a community at Aloha Aina farms, from Fulford, which was a hilly but not overly difficult or stressful walk, despite being along a roadside. People here are well accustomed to give pedestrians space, or lifts.

Plenty of berries to pick
Plenty of berries to pick, just up the hill from Fulford.

On the latter subject, I hitch-hiked, which is a first for me on my own. It is super-safe here, everyone said, and the best way to get about. On Saturdays there is a market in the main town, Ganges, so I headed there. It took 10-15 minutes or so to cadge a lift, first from a yoga instructor who was happy to chat about life on the island, telling me all about the long weekend (which is now), life on the island, and the main event tonight, a gig with Ganga Giri and the sound of the didgeridoo, in Fulford’s community hall. My second lift was a gent who was just as happy to sit in companionable silence, dropping me in the centre of Ganges itself, right by the market.

Produce for sale. Outside most places
Produce for sale. Outside most places.

I wandered around the market, which was varied and lively, but not particularly interesting to someone unbothered by collecting any more things. There was food, but much more arts and crafts. I was more interested in the view of the waterfront, and in looking round the antiquarian and nearly new (plus, not-so secretly, some new) book shop.

 

 

Walking on a little, I had already decided to turn right along Upper Ganges road before I saw the sign saying ‘Cold beer, 1 min walk!’. That convinced me, though, and any thoughts of a cheap late lunch from a shop disappeared into Moby’s pub and its beer and burger. With a view over the harbour, US sports on the TV and wifi, for multiple distractions.

 

 

Returning, I hopped into a wagon driven by a lady who sells leatherwork at the market. It must be going reasonably well, as she was out of buckles and other parts. She dropped me at a junction, and although traffic was sparse, shortly afterwards a car dropped a passenger on the other side of the road, then cruised up to me. The lady driver became the second of the day to recommend Ganga Giri at the community hall – she was on her way to pick up a friend and eventually get down there herself.

 

 

I thought it was only 5pm when I returned, but it was soon 7.30, so I probably read it wrong. With a community, including visitors, of about 30, people came and went from house to land (it’s not a garden, but space that includes a fire pit, drive, parking, sitting area outside the kitchen and so on) and around; in the melee, there was no clear idea of whether people were headed down to Fulford or not, but just as it got dark, decisions were made and a couple of cars left. A fellow guest had put it when I expressed curiosity as to how a didgeridoo group might sound “Is it worth $25 to you to find out?” and I decided it was. As we milled about outside, it was clear that we were not too late – the intro DJ was still playing. Time to be greeted with hugs by Doug and Phil, pay and move in. I lost my group immediately, some of them I’d only seen in passing, so might not recognise in any case. Standing at the back, it took me some time, at least 15 minutes, to get into the swing, but after that, the DJ did a job in starting the party. Ganga Giri, on stage around 10.30, got us moving with thanks to the traditional owners of the land, several guests singers who melted back into the audience after their piece. Most of us stayed on the dancefloor throughout, enjoying the mix of reggae, dance and didgeridoo. The audience was mostly fairly young, but all ages were there and welcome, with all sorts of styles and work put in on the dance floor. I felt out of place for a few moments; I knew none of the locals, and my only interesting facial hair was a result purely of not shaving. But I soon picked up on the fact that there was a lot of love in the room; there might have been a lot of E or something similar, too, for all I know, but it was friendly for sure. By the end of the evening, even with all the doors full open, there was a lot of sweat, too. Anyone with slick-soled footwear had long-since abandoned it in favour of bouncing around barefoot.

I hadn’t realised I needed to move so much, but still left 15 mins or so before the end; the offer of a lift up the hill, avoiding a 45 minute walk, tilting the balance away from staying to hear every minute.

Ganga Giri in Fulford
Ganga Giri in Fulford.

I got back to the farm/community in which I am staying a little after midnight, full of love for my hippy companions. It is a very lively and tolerant place to be. Even being in a ‘stage 4 drought’, encouraged to swim in one of the fresh-water lakes nearby rather than shower and to keep showers under 3 minutes if we absolutely must. After a week or so, we’ll all smell the same anyway. And why be a hippy if you’re not doing it properly?

Clover Point parkrun, Victoria, BC, Canada

Clover Point was the first parkrun I looked at when heading to North America in June. I got the idea that they all start at 8, but actually it is just this one, which has a slightly different climate and daylight hours to others. I also realised that travel was going to be fiddly – you can certainly get here from Vancouver, but without a car it might take a while to get to various ferry ports. The bus from Swartz Bay, on the island, to and from Victoria is, at least, straightforward.

Clover Point parkrun route
Clover Point parkrun route.

Travelling from Seattle, though, is simple. Hop on the clipper from pier 69, just before the waterfront and sculpture parks in the city, and 2hrs 45mins later you are in Victoria (though there’s no stupid-early service, so you’ll come the day before at latest). From there you could walk to the parkrun, though it would be daft to get there the day before. I walked close, mind, because sunset over the water from Beacon Hill park and its surroundings is pretty stunning.

Sunset over Beacon Hill park
Sunset over Beacon Hill park, Friday.

The run itself heads along the coast, with one point where you don’t take the shortest route. It is clearly marked by cones. A little further along, just before a bridge, I spotted more cones to my left and wondered if I had missed another turning, but they were marking part of the route back. The run goes round Holland Point park, top left of the map, anti-clockwise, so it isn’t quite an out and back. The left turn to bring you back on yourself, despite being the furthest point from the start, isn’t quite at half way, for instance.

Gulls grouping at Clover Point
Gulls grouping at Clover Point.

I walked to the start, through the park and passing several runners enjoying the trails there. There wasn’t much sign of life at 7.30, butI am sure volunteers were on the course, setting out cones, and perhaps positioning the one marshal, at that main left turn. Gulls flocked at Clover Point.

A runner on the coast
A runner – not a parkrunner, nor is this the route – on the coast

I had a really good run, perhaps because my body was having a boost after all the walking at altitude last week. I’ve a knee problem which is getting no better despite little running, but it didn’t stop me moving at a fair pace. I had heard one of the volunteers saying that “Matt is there to show everyone the way”, so when I was joined at the front by another bloke, I assumed it was Matt, pacing me for now but soon to head off. I dropped him, though, about 2km in, and opened up a gap. I wasn’t sure what pace we were doing, but the course’s undulations – with a tarmacced surface, mostly out and back route and small ups and downs, it’s a lot like Folkestone – kept me thinking. Just as well, because I tried to check my 1-mile split and couldn’t see, being in a shaded spot just then.

People gather by the parkrun flag
People gather by the parkrun flag.

As it turned out, mile 1 was my slowest, 2 my quickest, with 3 solid, and a downhill finish onto the final grass sprint (which will change when some works have been finished at Clover Point) kept me honest, for a solid sub 19 time. Quite a difference from running around 21 minutes at altitude! As a nice bonus, though it shouldn’t matter, parkrun being all about personal challenges and community, I finished first for the first time in Canada, which means I have managed that (or been in the right place at the right time, without super quick runners – like Matt, who was tail-walking today) in seven countries.

View from the start line, Clover Point parkrun
View from the start line, Clover Point parkrun.

It is their anniversary next week and they hope for a record attendance. It should be a good omen that they nearly had it this week, just 1 short of that record. After a fascinating conversation with a fellow Brit who has been through some tough and some good times since moving to Canada, I cadged a lift to the coffee place, chatted with a South African and several Canadians and was still in plenty of time to checkout. An 8 am start is a shock to the system at first, but it does offset the morning nicely, leaving more time to socialise and then be pleasantly surprised to find it is still fairly early.

I imagine that in colder months it can be pretty exposed on the route, but this is a glorious run, and a decent one to have a go at if you are in search of a fast time.

Seattle to Victoria on the Clipper

The Victoria Clipper is a ferry service from Seattle’s waterfront to Victoria, BC, in under 3 hours. It is busy in the summer, so boarding takes a while, but seemingly against all odds we got away on time and pulled into Victoria in good time. If you can avoid checking luggage, you will be among the first off, though the line was still pretty long to go through immigration.

Book a week in advance, at www.clippervacations.com, and you can pick up a slightly cheaper fare – mine was $155 (US). It might be worth signing up to their email newsletter in hope of a special offer, though nothing came through in the few weeks I was signed up. It is summer, though, so there’s probably no need to entice people in.

Victoria Clipper in Seattle

I settled down to wait to board, chatting with an older couple who had suggested they needed a t-shirt like mine (slogan “Scruffy on purpose”) for her son. They are, she reckoned, now too old to take on long travel via airplane (“but we’re still alive, so let’s just enjoy that!”), but happy to pop across on the clipper overnight in order to watch baseball. They had arrived at the stadium last night only to discover they’d left the tickets behind, but as they searched for a taxi they lucked out, and after a bus driver wasn’t able to call them a taxi, he took them to their hotel and back. People can be great all over.

The journey was smooth. There’s at-seat service of food and drinks, if you want it, and a customs declaration to fill in. I slept a little, listened to podcasts and peered out of the window at the sunny view as we travelled. The crew pointed out, in brief, a few attractions to left and right; the various islands we passed, a lighthouse and so on.

Immigration wasn’t too painful – we had a conversation, with a few leading questions, but seemed happy enough to let me back into Canada.

Victoria, BC, waterfront

Canada seems a better fit for me, at least this trip, than the US, and the cosmopolitan, decent-sized but very walkable, Victoria, seemed immediately welcoming. Some of that must be in my mind, of course, but Canada feels more comfortable. I’m not sure if it is more European, more relaxed, less rough round the edges of a combination of all of those. The city is pretty busy, at any rate, but without the obvious homelessness and mental illness problems of US cities.

I checked in to my hostel, with a particularly warm welcome thanks to the staff member sharing my birthday. He was older, to set me fully at my ease.

It was already early evening, warm and sunny, though with an obvious chill creeping in to the air. When I arrived in Canada, in late June, the coolness of the air was welcome, and though I soon found 17 degrees a little too cool, I was happy to be able to walk and run distances without worrying about the humidity and heat sapping my energy totally. It is warmer than that here now, but even after a warm summer (so far) in the US, it feels like the end of that summer is arriving a little quickly, and the cool of the evening set in a little too quickly.

Still, I took myself on a wandering tour of the parks, down towards the water, with the sun setting over the rocks a particular highlight. The streets were full of people and traffic, though without seeming gridlocked, and cars were slowed by tricycle and horse-drawn cart transports. Friday night in Victoria, in the heart of summer, a pleasant atmosphere for all the family.

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