Whistle Stop: Forks, Washington — The Twilight Zone

Tues, Sept. 18: After a full day of exploring and hiking the beauty of the Pacific Northwest (including Lake Crescent, Marymere Falls, Hoh Rainforest, Sol Duc Falls, and First Beach at La Push — possibly a later post on this), I made my way to Forks, WA, where I would be spending the night.

Now, Forks, WA was once primarily a logging town. Until 2005, that is. In 2005, the first book of the Twilight series — which author Stephenie Meyer had decided to set in her hometown of Forks — made its appearance in bookstores, and a small town was forever changed. The following is an account of my brief brush with . . . the Twilight Zone:

“You want the non-Twilight-themed room, right?”

When I got this question over the phone, I knew this would be an interesting stay. I apparently got into town two days after the annual Twilight convention — Stephenie Meyer Day a.k.a. Bella’s Birthday, from Sept. 14-16, 2012 — wrapped up. A few banners celebrating the day still adorned the town when I drove in, but they were gone by the following morning (so no pictures, unfortunately).

The Twilight themed specials didn’t stop with hotels (every single lodging seemed to have a sign with something like “Edward Cullen would stay here!”). Every single store and restaurant in the town was trying to cash in (even the few shops that appeared to stubbornly resist Twilight decor — I ate at a coffee shop this morning that went with a Forks’ logging history theme — had small “Welcome, Twilight fans!” signs). One firewood store marketed its firewood as “Jacob Black’s Firewood.” I wondered whether any teenage girl would be persuaded by the sign to buy a log. But then again, the phenomenon wasn’t just limited to teenage girls — I saw a middle-aged man sign a Twilight guestbook at Three Rivers Restaurant, which I stopped at for dinner.  I confess that I stopped at that restaurant — midway between the La Push beaches I was visiting and Forks, WA — purely because of its Twilight decor. “Treaty Line,” a conspicuous sign outside read, “No vampires beyond this point.” (I would learn later — from the motel receptionist, an older man who looked to be about 65 — that La Push was werewolf territory). I got the werewolf burger, which was pretty delicious. The restaurant had a Twilight seating section in the back and a Twilight menu. Outside, they had converted a “Fire Threat Level” sign (present everywhere on the Olympic Peninsula) to a “Vampire Threat Level” one. After dinner, I made my way back to vampire territory and checked into my Forks motel.

As I had a few hours to kill before catching a bus back to Seattle, I spent the following morning exploring the town, taking photos, and chatting with a few of its inhabitants. Eventually, I came across Leppell’s Twilight Central, “The best selection of Twilight merchandise in town!” I went in.

I was the only person in the shop at the time, and there were two employees working the counter — one woman who looked to be in her 30s and an older man who looked to be in his early 70s. I struck up a conversation with them.

“What did this store used to be? Before Twilight?” I inquired. The woman led me upstairs, where she flipped on the light switch, revealing an assortment of home decoration items and various trinkets. “Leppell’s Flowers and Gifts. This is what the lower floor used to look like…and this is where our customers go when they want to escape the Twilight Zone,” she smiled.

“Have you read the series and seen the movies yourself?” She had. But she was quick to add that her favorite books were Kafka’s The Trial and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The Twilight series wasn’t quite her cup of tea, she said, but she thought the phenomenon was fun.

“How many people tend to visit the store when it’s not Stephenie Meyer weekend?” I asked, glancing around at the empty store. I was shocked by her answer: “oh, we average about 100 a day, except for the winter season.” The older man chimed in, “we had 75,000 people sign our guestbook last year alone, from all over the world.” Whoa. The woman mentioned that she had 200 people in the back room this past weekend for Edward and Bella’s wedding reception — just one of the many events that take place on Stephenie Meyer day. “Before 2005, the owner had one part-time employee helping her out. Since 2005, she’s hired three permanent employees.”

A lot of the merchandise in the store is made by local artists, the woman mentioned, and the store owned most of the trademarks and designs that were sold. The official marketing company supplied a few items, but most of them were unique to the store. I have to admit that the items I saw on the lower Twilight level were, on a whole, much more creative and unique than the items upstairs that they used to sell.   

“Are you tired of this at all?” “Not at all!” the older man responded. “I love talking to all these people. I’ve met people of so many different nationalities and from all over the world. How else could you have that chance when you live in a small town?” he asked. He added that Twilight was exposing a lot of people to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. “Many of these people — they don’t know about the beautiful forests here, so they’ll come for Twilight and then keep coming back to visit the forests.”

And though Stephenie Meyer day is over, the store employees won’t be getting much of a rest; they’re already preparing for the release of Breaking Dawn Part 2 in a few months. “Most of the fans, as they left, were already saying ‘see you in November!'” she laughed.


Whistle Stop: An Unexpected Conversation With Mennonites

[Note: I’m posting this from Seattle, Washington, where I’ve just arrived on the Amtrak train. Just hours earlier, I was passing through the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound. I’m catching up on Internet in a Starbucks (though not THE Starbucks) while waiting for a 1:10 bus that will take me to the Olympic Peninsula, where I’ll be spending the next two days. The bulk of this post was written on the train.]

On Wed, Sept. 12, I boarded the Empire Builder from Union Station, Chicago at 2:15 p.m. and settled in for a long 24 hour ride to Glasgow, Montana, where I would be staying with my cousin’s family for three days. The first thing I noticed was that a great many Amish and Mennonites use the Amtrak train system. I had a chance to chat with three Mennonite women for nearly two hours in the Observation Car. It was a very interesting conversation, and I jotted down what I could remember following the conversation:

The group (six of them, though I met only three) was traveling from Lancaster County, PA to visit relatives in Tomah, WI. According to them, Tomah had been settled roughly 35 years ago by Lancaster Mennonites seeking better farmland; as a result, most Lancaster Mennonites had friends or relatives in Wisconsin. I talked primarily with one woman, who looked to be in her late 50s, while the other two were engaged in their own conversation (in Pennsylvania Dutch — which they described as being very similar to the Swiss German dialect) but jumped into ours from time to time.

This woman (we never exchanged names) was the oldest of eleven; she had four brothers and six sisters. She worked in a greenhouse, growing flowers and arranging hanging floral baskets. There was great demand for them, she told me when I inquired—they always sold off their entire supply and sometimes could not even meet demand. They had just finished with “mums” (which I learned was short for chrysanthemums) and when she returned from Wisconsin, she would be tending to poinsettias for the fall season.

On the Amish

So what are the biggest differences between Amish and Mennonites, I asked her. “Aside from dress and appearance.” (I had originally mistaken her for Amish, and she explained the differences in their dress to me). She paused at my question. “Is there a major difference in belief?” I offered. But she continued to mull my question over.

“Shunning,” she said finally. When a member of the Amish community stops heeding the Church, they’re shunned by the entire community—all ties are cut and the family completely disowns that person. But when a Mennonite leaves the Church, she explained, you’re still allowed to interact with them—to “sit with them and eat with them.” For example, she recounted—in a disapproving tone of voice—how her brother had left the Church. It was “a shock to all of us,” she recalled. He was already married to a woman in the community, had children, and had a farm. “None of us realized how unhappy he was.” Now he drives cars, watches television, and uses computers. She still talks to him and eats with him; but — she added — she can’t ride in a car that he drives (whereas she is allowed to ride in cars driven by non-Mennonites) because that would implicitly condone his decision.

Our conversation would later reveal many other differences between the Mennonite and Amish, so I found it interesting that she found the practice of shunning to be the most significant.

On Civic Participation

At one point, I asked her if members of the Mennonite community tended to vote in elections.

“Oh, we pray,” she told me in a matter-of-factly tone of voice.

“I’m sorry?” I asked blankly, unsure if that was a response to my question.

She elaborated: the Mennonites believe that God will put the right person in office — so instead of voting for the person, they simply prayed to God. They did not believe that it was for man to choose who would lead them, but for God to decide who would lead. We are all mere men, was the way she put it—and how could man profess to know better than God what is best for us?

She also added that Mennonites did not approve of the vitriolic mud-slinging in these elections. “The way they drag each other down…” she murmured with strong disapproval. She told me of a Mennonite saying that love and hate belong in same box (or something to that effect)—the idea being that both emotions were unproductive and dangerous, and that each person’s words and actions should be considered objectively and equally. I briefly wondered how aware she was of cable news networks, but I just let her talk since she seemed to be quite animated on this subject.

Finally, she went on to express sympathy for Obama, unprompted: “It seems to me that he’s tried to do right but just keeps getting blocked.”

“It seems so hard to get anything done in your system.”

On Cameras

They had spent a few days in Chicago, and I asked if they had seen the Cloud Gate sculpture. “That bean-shaped mirror sculpture in the park?” I elaborated. She still wasn’t sure what that was, so I took out my camera to show her a photo of the Bean. She appeared to flinch somewhat when I slid the LCD screen under her eyes.

“Oh! Uh- is this OK?” I asked stupidly. She responded in the affirmative. But she said that they weren’t allowed to use the cameras.

“Is this just digital cameras only, or even the old film kind?”

Both, she replied—this particular rule had nothing to do with the technology being used but rather, stemmed from the commandment prohibiting making an image or likeness of God or of anything of His creation.

“And it encourages vanity,” she added. I couldn’t help but think of how “this would make a great Facebook profile photo” was so often on people’s minds.  I wondered how much she knew of the social network phenomenon, but didn’t get a chance to ask. However, I’m guessing not all that much since I later learned that  she considered the greatest “evil” of the Internet to be…scammers.

Mennonites Play Oregon Trail, Too

“Can you imagine what it was like to make this trip in a wagon?” she murmured, as we passed miles and miles of vast open plains. At one point during that conversation, I mentioned playing Oregon Trail as a kid and started explaining what it was. But to my surprise, one of her traveling companions—the youngest one—excitedly jumped in the conversation. “Yes! We have that game, too!”

“What? The computer game? You can play that?” I asked in confusion.

No, it’s not a computer game, but it’s the same game, she insisted. And as she explained it, I realized it was indeed the same game. For example, she said, children try to toss a dime into a cup to determine the outcome of choosing to ford a river. If it goes in, you make it across; if it doesn’t, then your oxen drowned. Or you flip a coin to determine whether a team member dies of dysentery. Or how cold the winter is and how much damage early cold does to your team. It sounded like all aspects of game play are  reduced to event cards and mini-games of chance or skill. All the kids absolutely LOVE that game, she exulted.

Oregon Trail: a truly universal game!

Upcoming: Day 2 of Chicago, rural life in Montana, Glacier National Park, and train culture.

Whistle Stop: Day 1 of Chicago

[Note: Posting this from Glasgow, Montana. I’m typing up fragments of posts as I travel (so what you see isn’t all retroactively written), but I’ve been a lot more occupied than I had anticipated, so please bear with me as I try to catch up!]

Sunday, Sept. 9: After a nighttime hike on Goat Island (which is part of Niagara Falls State Park), my friends drove me down to Buffalo, where we enjoyed a very Buffalo meal of wings and roast beef on weck at Duff’s before they dropped me off at the Amtrak station. It was a small station, but a surprisingly packed one. I took the midnight train going to Chicago and dozed off shortly after clambering on.

Monday, Sept. 10: I arrived in Chicago a little before noon. As I walked from Union Station to my hostel, I was immediately struck by how immense the city felt. I’m not sure if this was illusory because of my lack of familiarity with the city, but Chicago buildings simply seemed, on average, more massive and monolithic compared to the buildings in NY. I’ll continue to mull over why this was; I think the sprawled nature of the city may have contributed to it.

Now, I normally do a lot of research on a city before arriving so that I have a pretty good idea of the places I want to check out when I arrive. This was not the case for Chicago — I was going into it nearly blind. I confess that most of my knowledge of the look and layout of Chicago comes from the Nolan Batman films and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And the musical Chicago didn’t help at all. After setting my things down at Hostelling International, I grabbed a free tourist map and set off for a day of exploration.

Striking teachers at Cloud Gate.

Studying the map, I quickly realized that just about every building in Chicago was an architectural landmark of some sort. Unable to discern how each enumerated building on the map somehow contributed to the development of the skyscraper, I decided to start with the parks. And instead of seeking out all those notable buildings, I decided I would just read up on them if I happened to pass them (which worked out well in retrospect since I did so much walking). With a vague plan of attack in mind, I headed east from my hostel to Buckingham Fountain (more on this place in a later post), then north to Millennium Park. I stopped to people-watch at Crown Fountain (I had never heard of this sculpture before — it’s an interesting concept, but overall I found the faces a little weird — I did like the setup otherwise though), and then continued onto the iconic Cloud Gate, which has become one of my all-time favorite sculptures. I spent over an hour looking at the bean from every angle, experimenting with various camera angles, and then just sitting back and watching everyone else explore the sculpture. It’s simultaneously interactive and social (for example, you can’t help but capture photos of other people in your own photos) while allowing for personal exploration of the sculpture and private contemplation.

“Chicago Special” from Giordano’s

I had an early pizza dinner at Giordano’s (hot gooey goodness). By that time, the sound of news helicopters covering the downtown teachers’ rally was permeating the entire city. After dinner, I continued north past the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River. I paused at the Chicago Tribune building to inspect the Aesop Fable-themed archway and the pieces of various famous buildings on its façade. I then turned east to walk along the riverfront to the Centennial Fountain, which shoots out a jet of water every half hour to the other side of the river (nothing special, but the river walk was nice).

As sunset approached, I started making my way up the “Magnificent Mile” portion of Michigan Avenue (the equivalent of NYC’s Fifth Avenue) to the John Hancock Center, the fourth tallest building in Chicago. Taking the advice of the receptionist at my hostel, I went up to the Signature Room bar and lounge on the 96th floor instead of the observation deck — so instead of paying $27, I enjoyed the same view over a reasonably-priced (and tasty) $7.50 Raspberry Fizz. Even the view from the Signature Room’s woman’s bathroom, with windows so large that they were practically glass-paneled walls, was stunning.

After nightfall, I left the tower and headed back over the river. On my way back to the hostel, I revisited Cloud Gate and hung around for a little while. Even at 9pm, the plaza was relatively busy. Cops on patrol comically zoomed around on segways and photographers fiddled with their tripods and positioning around the sculpture. After an hour or so, I headed back to the hostel.

Coming soon: Day 2 of Chicago, the Amtrak ride from Chicago to Montana (during which I have some interesting conversations, including with a group of Mennonite women), and farm life in Montana (where I’m staying for 2 nights at my cousin’s). Unfortunately, I won’t have Internet for the next 2-3 days, which is Glacier National Park. The next time I update will probably be from Seattle!

Whistle Stop: Toronto, Niagara Falls

Downtown Toronto from the Toronto Islands. Super-vivid color mode.

[Posting this from Chicago, where I just arrived on an overnight train from Buffalo]

I visited Toronto a little under two years ago and managed to get most of my whirlwind sightseeing in then (whirlwind sightseeing is my favorite form of travel, but I find I have to explain/defend it a lot, so maybe a topic for a future post). This visit was shorter and at a more relaxed pace. I met up with two friends, and we hit up St. Lawrence Market, where I finally got to try Canadian peameal bacon at Carousel Bakery (soon to be featured on Anthony Bourdain) and Montreal-style bagels at St. Urbain Bagel Bakery — both delicious. I enjoyed the street vendor poutine I got last time I was in the city so much that I tried an actual poutinerie this time around, Smoke’s (poutine is a Canadian concoction of fries, gravy, and cheese curds…yeah, I know). We also took the ferry out to the Toronto Islands, which provided some beautiful views of the city skyline, and was a nice, serene place for a boardwalk stroll. Finally, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) (which is a way bigger film festival than I thought it was — described by some as second to Cannes) was in town. I was surprised by how high-profile many of the films were (I was expecting indie stuff) — Anna Karenina, On the Road, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. We were unable to get tickets for either of the two days I was in town; we did, however, catch a glimpse of Alex Skarsgard from True Blood being interviewed on the red carpet.

Other places we hit up: the Niagara Peninsula wineries on the way to Niagara Falls (where we did the Cave of the Winds tour on the U.S. side — you get to hike right up to the falls for $11, ponchos and sandals provided — really a great price for an awesome experience, and I highly recommend it!).

Cave of the Winds experience

Fun Fact: Classical Place Names in Central New York

On the way up to Toronto (a surprisingly pleasant 11-hour Megabus ride, much of which I spent reading a photography guide and experimenting with my camera), I noticed a lot of Greek-inspired city names in Central New York. Now, I had been vaguely aware of this trend before — Ithaca, Syracuse, and Troy — but my curiosity was piqued after passing a Marathon, NY. I turned to Google and learned that there is, in fact, a book on just this subject: Classical Place Names in New York State by William R. Farrell. Apparently, we have two people to thank for this: Simeon DeWitt, New York State Surveyor General from 1784-1834, and his clerk, Robert Harpur. They oversaw the carving up of the area of Central New York once known as the Military Tract (land set aside to compensate New York’s soldiers after their participation in the Revolutionary War) and both happened to really enjoy the classics. So there ya go. For more on this, check out this blog.

Niagara Falls

Whistle Stop: Eve of the Trip

All packed and ready to go!

In the morning, I will be kicking off my trip across America with a ten-hour Megabus ride up to, ironically, Toronto (because how better to truly appreciate America than to first spend a weekend in Canada?…kidding). I thought I’d briefly map out my planned route here:

After a weekend in Toronto that will conclude with a trip to Niagara Falls, I’ll board my first Amtrak train at Buffalo and head to Chicago, the heart of the Amtrak rail system. From Chicago, I’ll take the Empire Builder line westward to its terminus in Seattle, with two stops in Montana along the way (including Glacier National Park). Then, after taking in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll swing down the West Coast on the Coast Starlight line, hitting up Crater Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and San Francisco on the way to LA. From LA, I’ll hop on the Southwest Chief heading back east, with extended stops in the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and St. Louis — and possibly more, depending on my energy level by week 5.

Still, given the sometimes unpredictable nature of train travel (in 2011, flooding knocked out significant portions of the Empire Builder line for over a month), I’m trying to keep an open mind and maintain flexibility.

Whistle Stop: Introduction

In about a week, I will be embarking on a solo five-week-long transcontinental train journey that will take me through eighteen states, following historic routes first explored by Lewis and Clark, carved out by the earliest railroad tycoons, and traversed by presidential candidates in the days of whistle-stop train campaigns (which inspired this blog series’ name). If all goes well, I will visit five national parks and eight major cities; stop at both ends of the Oregon Trail (and relive my elementary school glory days); straddle the Continental Divide; and sleep on the floor of the Grand Canyon — and this is just the stuff I’m planning to do. I’ll be documenting my travels here on Stone Soup so that I can keep track of cool things I learn during my trip (I expect to learn a lot about U.S. history and rocks, for one thing), the people I meet, and also to provide useful travel information to those interested in riding the rails themselves.

In preparation for my trip, I’ve purchased an Amtrak USA Rail Pass for $829, which will cover all of my travel. The pass is good for 45 days and covers 18 segments of travel (a segment is defined as any time you get on and then get off an Amtrak vehicle, regardless of length). Note: USA Rail Passes are also available for shorter journeys: 15-day/8-segment ($429) and 30-day/12-segment ($649). For lodgings, I hope to couch-surf or live in hostels as much as possible. I plan to pack light, and my four most prized possessions/travel companions will be Hobbes, my laptop, a Kindle, and my camera (a recently purchased Canon Powershot S95 — one of my goals is to finally learn how aperture, ISO, and shutter speed interact with each other on this trip).

That’s all for now. Next time: a basic overview of the route I’m taking and why I decided to see America by train. I’m so excited!

Rabbit, Run

Rabbits are stupid creatures. They’re grazers, chewing on pasture; their huge eyes scan the sky for danger (just about any predator is bigger than them and far more imposing).  They run fast but not far, dashing away when threatened yet incapable of aiming at any lasting end: they don’t roam far. Rabbits don’t just run; they breed incessantly, fucking furiously is their path to immortality. Maybe it’s this oblivious helplessness, the gentle hedonism, that makes them so appealing. Maybe it’s that they’re just puffs of white fur with cute ears. Either way, they’re just so darn cute and we can’t help but love them.

The rabbit is a rather unheroic beast, yet that’s the spirit animal John Updike chose for Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the main character of Rabbit, Run. Harry was once a high school basketball star. He set his school’s scoring record as a junior and then broke it again as a senior. It took four years for someone else to break it in turn. Now (as of 1960 in Rabbit, Run) he’s a twenty-five year old father of one and husband to a pregnant wife. He’s a salesman of the Magi-Peeler kitchen appliance. He’s also basically a rabbit.

Ok, not really. This isn’t Watership Down (or Redwall: funny, the continued anthropomorphism of rodents in fiction). Harry’s just a person with strangely-rabbit like qualities. Updike revels in the sheer wit ofmatching Harry’s characteristics to his rodent namesake’s special traits, delighting in rabbit-like mannerisms (“Now, Harry, don’t wrinkle your nose.”) as well as his rabbit’s soul. Harry, you see, shares all of those qualities I wrote about above. He’s obsessed with sex; he instinctively runs from adversity. He shares the rabbit’s wide-eyed appreciation of nature, is a grazer rather than a predator, his inner gaze somehow always half-turned towards the sky, towards finding the deeper meaning in the brutal ordinariness of life around him. He’s a sensitive creature but not a strong or imaginative one. When he feels the oppressive ordinariness hemming him in, the only thing he can think to do is run away. Ignorant of destination, he never wanders far. He’s a domestic animal at heart. Continue reading