…and then we started walking

15 Sultan 166 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Woodstock”

Twenty years ago today, the Global Walk for a Livable World began its trek across the country to raise awareness for the environment.  For the previous two weeks, we had been gathered in a field in Simi Valley, CA engaging in long meetings, doing some construction with the support vehicles, and getting to know each other.  Now it was time for the rubber soles to hit the road.

We had our opening ceremonies in a parking lot near Santa Monica pier.  A beautiful mural featuring a seascape with whales and dolphins was unveiled to the public in conjunction with the event.  Casey Kasem was the emcee, and the event featured speakers, music, and concluded with children painting along the bottom of mural and leaving painted handprints. 

Afterwards, we went to Santa Monica Beach to gather for the beginning of the Walk.  I stepped to the edge of the ocean, cupped my hands, and “baptized” myself with the cool Pacific water.  Then we lined up, ready to walk, and the beating of a prayer drum by Japanese Buddhist monks signaled the beginning of the Walk. 

We stopped at a church for another event.  I remember an elderly Japanese woman told her story of surviving the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the actors John Ritter and Joe Spano both read poems. Then we continued, walking east through Santa Monica.  We walked seven miles that day, stopping in a church in West L.A. for the night.  We were dog-tired that evening, and wondered how we would manage the fifteen-mile days that would characterize most of the Walk. 

We gradually built up the miles in the coming days.  We walked nine miles to downtown L.A. on the second day, eleven miles to the nearby suburbs to the east on the third day (I think it was West Covina, but am not 100% certain), and San Dimas on the fourth day.  I believe we rested a day in Claremont. Then I remember contending with nasty smog as we walked through the Inland Empire to Fontana for one night, and then the next day we walked to San Bernardino, and walked to Redlands the day after that.  The metropolitan area began to give way to desert on the next day, and we camped out in the city park in the little town of Banning, CA. 

After Banning, we were in open desert, and would be for most of the next several weeks.  I remember a stop in Joshua Tree where the temperature plunged to 17 above with high winds, and I decided to brave the night in my tent and sleeping bag rather than accept the invitation to sleep indoors at a community center.  I also remember a stop in Twenty-Nine Palms, where we camped at a desert oasis.  Afterwards, we stayed the nights in open desert all the way to the Arizona border as we headed towards Phoenix…

(thanks to Gabriela Cover for the pictures!)

it was twenty years ago today–an anniversary of ‘global’ proportions

17 Sharaf 166 B.E. (Baha’i calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  U2, “Dancing Barefoot”

It was twenty years ago today that over a hundred people from all over the country travelled to L.A. via bus and airplane (and perhaps even thumb) and gathered together in a large field behind a church in Simi Valley, CA.   The purpose was to convene and prepare themselves for the Global Walk for A Livable World.

The Global Walk was a cross-country walk for the environment in which roughly one hundred people walked from Los Angeles to New York over a period of nine months in 1990.  We were a mobile caravan and intentional community living out of tents, walking an average of fifteen miles per day, and stopping in cities and small towns to talk about the environmental crisis and ways to help save the planet.  You can read more about the Global Walk here.

I had the fortune of being one of the staff members for the Global Walk.  I found out I was hired by the Global Walk organizaiton in the middle of finals week of my senior year in college, and at the end of May 1989, I hopped on a bus to L.A. to begin my work.  Between June and August of that year, three of us lived out of a van as we helped map the walking route and establish contacts in different cities.  Then from August 1989 until January 1990, I worked out of the Global Walk office across from the Palisades in Santa Monica. I served as their field coordinator to  follow up further with contacts in developing publicity events, speaking events, and logistical support for the Walk.  We as staff lived very simply, subsisting on stipends of $500 a month and staying for free at the homes of former Great Peace Marchers.

To be honest, it was hard to imagine what kind of creature we were creating in that Santa Monica office. At that point, the walkers existed only as names on registration forms, and it was hard to imagine what kind of people we would encounter once we began to gather in Simi Valley. 

But on January 15, 1990, they began arriving. Some of them stopped at the Santa Monica office prior to setting up camp to help out with last minute mailings and other things.  It was fascinating to finally associate faces with names.  The Walk started becoming something tangible at that point.  What had been an organization with an office and small staff started becoming a community taking on a life and a personality of its own.

We camped out in the field for two weeks.  During that time we had a number of meetings where we hashed out decision-making processes, job rotations and other issues.  People pitched in to help with constructing the interiors and painting the exteriors of the support vehicles.  We also had a talent show, a few dances, and activities to get to know each other.  People tried out their gear and an REI near Glendale, CA offered walkers a steep discount on gear–that is where I got my walking shoes, tent, and sleeping bag.  I still have the latter two today.

I have vivid memories of the sights, smells, and feelings of that time.  It was a time giddy with anticipation and excitement.  In some ways, those two weeks in Simi Valley were a trial run for when we would actually start walking. But more on the start of the Walk in a future post…

exploring southwest wisconsin

13 ‘Izzat 166 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Drumbeat in my head: Alison Krauss and Union Station, “Restless”

After my visit to the Baha’i House of Worship last Tuesday, I returned home to Madison Tuesday night.  Then Wednesday morning I set out to explore Southwest Wisconsin.  I had brunch in a small cafe in Belleville, then took WI Highway 39 and drove through New Glarus and Mineral Point.

Then from Mineral Point I picked up US Highway 151 and took it to Dubuque.  I’d always wanted to see that stretch of 151, but honestly it didn’t show me much.  At one point I stopped near Belmont to look at the site of the original capitol of the Wisconsin Territory, but I hadn’t realized that I’d be looking at a historic marker in the middle of nowhere.

I stopped in Dubuque for about two hours. The city has some high bluffs overlooking the downtown area and the river valley.  I discovered an elevator that could take me up to the top of a bluff.  This elevator consists of two stairstep elevator cars on very steep rails going up the bluff.  You pull the cord to alert the elevator operator and she starts the elevator, sending you up the bluff.  It costs $2 for a round-trip ride.  Neato.

From Dubuque I turned around and took US Highway 151 to Highway 35, which is supposed to be scenic.  It is scenic, but not between 151 and Prairie du Chien.  That stretch of the highway was disappointing, at least until it merged with US Highway 18 and went through some valleys to get to Prairie du Chien.  I stopped at the Brisbois Motor Lodge in downtown Prairie du Chien for the night.

The next morning I got back onto Highway 35 and traveled north to La Crosse.  This time, the scenery was wonderful.  The highway was located between the bluffs and the Mississippi River and I got great views of both.  

In La Crosse I stopped at Grandad’s Bluff.  One little secret–the banner of this website is taken from a older sunset photo taken from the top of Grandad’s Bluff.  From there I took Highway 35 to Trempealeau and Perrot State Park.  I did a little hiking there and took in the view of Trempealeau Mountain. 

The village of Trempealeau is a cute little river town, and I ate lunch at the Trempealeau Hotel, which had nice views of the Mississippi River.

From there I turned around and headed back to La Crosse, and from there I picked up US Highway 14 to head back home to Madison.  Highway 14 has some spectacular views of its own.

Southwest Wisconsin always has had a special place in my heart.  It is an area unaffected by the glaciers which covered the land tens of thousands of years ago, and there are a lot of bluffs and valleys covering that corner of the state. During this trip, I could see patches of fall color amidst the green.  I would like to see the area again when it has more fall colors. 

more impressions of albuquerque and madison

13 Nur 166 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)

Soundtrack in my head:  Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, “Tense Bossa”

I was in Albuquerque last week to visit my father, my aunts and a friend.  Albuquerque has always been a second home to me, not only because my father has lived here for three years, but also because I’ve had relatives here my entire life.  Lately when I’ve been coming here, I find myself comparing Albuquerque with Madison

One advantage Albuquerque has over Madison is that Albuquerque is a  bit more diverse as a city.  Madison is pretty “lily-white” as cities go.  Albuquerque has a very large Latino population.  This includes both recent immigrants from Mexico, and others who can trace their family history in this area back three hundred years, before this area was considered part of the United States.  There is also a strong Native American influence that can be felt, as there are over a dozen Indian pueblos in New Mexico.

Another advantage is that Albuquerque is full of beautiful vistas.  The city straddles the Rio Grande River and runs east to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, which tower roughly a mile above the city.   Almost everywhere one turns, one can see a beautiful view of either the mountains or the valley.  My father lives near West Bluff Park which looks over the Rio Grande River, and shows the entire east side of the city and the mountains in their full grandiosity.

Albuquerque is about twice the size of Madison, and the metropolitan area as a whole is a little bit bigger than Madison’s. But Albuquerque is way more spread out than Madison is, occupying an area almost the same size as the city of Chicago. That’s partially because Albuquerque is a more car-oriented town than Madison. It’s laid out like many Southwestern cities, with lots of wide boulevards and commercial strips separated from bedroom communities. There are some walkable neighborhoods in of Albuquerque, mostly in the older sections, but this is more the exception than the the rule.

As a result, the city as a whole is less pedestrian friendly than Madison. In the neighborhoods I was in, there were fewer people on the street. I didn’t see a single house with a front porch. Indeed,many houses seem designed to isolate neighbors from each other. Patios tend to be in the backyard, shut off from other neighbors by cinder-block fences, and front entrances often are walled off from the front sidewalk. It’s almost feels like people want to shut themselves off from each other. I think such urban design actually makes the neighborhoods less safe. With fewer people on the street, there are fewer pairs of eyes and ears observing what’s going on.

I had the whole week off from work.  The Sunday before I returned to work was the only full vacation day I spent in Madison.  I found myself really appreciating the day.  I went to Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse to do some journal writing.  I ran into three people there that I knew–one of the baristas, one of my neighbors, and a former housemate from my old co-op.  As it turned out, my former housemate and I were both looking for somebody to go to the Marquette Waterfront Festival, so we ended up going there together ,  At the festival, we ran into one of my current housemates and a number of other friends.

So I like Albuquerque, and the right set circumstances could possibly get me to move out there, but there’s a lot I’d miss in Madison.


a “micro-sabattical,” attempted

8 Baha 165 B.E.
Soundtrack in my head: Let’s Active, “Horizon”

I’ve been on vacation most of this week. Mainly it’s because of a friend from out of town who visited me earlier in the week, but I also needed a break and some time for reflection. I rented a car so that my friend and I could visit the Baha’i Temple near Chicago and also show her some of the places in that area where I used to live and hang out. I also used it to show her around Madison, since this was her first time here.

I haven’t owned a car in four years. Most recently, I had a 1985 Plymouth Caravelle that used to belong to my grandmother. I kept having problems with it and it was getting more and more expensive to fix, so I gave it up and have been without a car since. As gas prices went through the roof, I became more and more glad about not owning a car.

But it hasn’t been easy living without a car in Madison. Of course, I live within walking distance of a number of things I need, including the Willy Street Co-op, a hardware store, and a number of restaurants. But sometimes I need something I can only get from one of the malls at either end of Madison. A trip to the mall on Madison’s substandard bus system could take 2-3 hours round trip,including time spent crossing parking lot after parking lot to get to an Office Max or a Burlington Coat Factory.

So it’s been interesting having a car this week. It’s been interesting being able to get to places within the city more quickly. Any point within the city is within a half-hour’s drive, with most of the things I need to go to within fifteen minutes. But I also realized this week that I don’t miss contending with traffic and parking places.

Yesterday, I used the car to go out to Spring Green, WI to write and reflect. At least that was my intention. I read an article in Madison Magazine about the idea of taking a “micro-sabbatical.” Such a “sabbatical,” the article suggested, could involve a day trip someplace to take oneself out of one’s normal routine and enable creative thinking about one’s work and life purpose. I thought that would be a good idea.

I remember back in 2000 having a feeling that my life was about to change. At first, it was a vague feeling, but then suddenly I had this strong feeling that I needed to leave my comfortable life in Chicago and move to Madison, Wisconsin as soon as possible. This feeling made little sense to me at the time, but later on, a series of events fell into place that actually made moving to Madison the most sensible and logical move.

At some point in the last few months, this vague feeling of impending change has come back. And that’s where it currently stands—as a vague feeling. So my mission yesterday in going to Spring Green was to get out of my normal surroundings and do some creative writing and thinking and to see if I could flesh out more details from that vague feeling.

I went to the General Store Cafe in Spring Green per a friend’s recommendation. I pulled out my laptop and started writing, but it was too noisy at the cafe for me to concentrate. I walked across the street to a tea house, but they were playing a world music version of “White Horse” and it was too peppy and loud for me. I ended up going to yet another cafe down the street, but it was blasting an oldies station and it was supposed to close down in 20 minutes for deliveries anyway. So I went to the library but even there people were talking too loud for me to concentrate.

visions of orange street lights dancing in my head, part I

Soundtrack in my head:  Charlie Byrd, “Angels We Have Heard On High”

At the end of 1989 I was fresh out of college, living in Los Angeles working for the Global Walk.  When I flew home from Los Angeles to Chicago for Christmas, I called ahead of time and reminded my parents to bring my winter coat with them when they picked me up, because I’d had no reason to bring it to Los Angeles with me.  That was a good call–it was 86 degrees when I took off from LAX and -3 when I arrived at Midway. 

The Walk was only going to be a temporary project that would conclude at the end of the following year, and so I was beginning to think about where I might live after the Walk ended.  I did not think it would be Chicago.  Between eighteen years in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and four years in Champaign-Urbana, I felt like I’d done my time in Illinois and it was time for me to move on.  

To my surprise, I found within myself a longing to return to Chicago as my parents were driving me home.  Now, on the outset, it did not seem like there was a good reason for me to react that way.  The route between Midway, and Oak Park is more than non-descript.  Cicero Avenue goes through some of the grittiest, ugliest industrial areas of Chicago. 

What got to me was the orange street lights.  Seriously.  Chicago’s street lights are a weird, incandescent orange, and that made it very, well, Chicago.  I have many memories of various adventures under those street lights–excursions to different parts of the city to visit family, hang out with friends, celebrate the Fourth of July or New Year’s.  And it was all coming back to me, even among the gritty parts of the city near the Stevenson Expressway. 

The other thing that I found affecting me was the radio show “The Midnight Special” on WFMT, which my father was playing on the radio in the mini-van.  (I mentioned this radio show in a previous post.)  In addition to providing awesome Christmas music, it also feature mostly folk music, but often with a Chicago flavor, and sometimes interspersed with brief comedy sketches and even the occasional literary reading. 

So, as we were passing not too far from the largest wastewater treatment plant in the world, I found myself getting soft-hearted, sentimental and almost teary-eyed.  Eleven months later, I moved back for good, or at least the next twelve years. 

Why I left Chicago for Madison later on is another story, too long to post right now, but let me just say for now that Madison did and still does feel more like home to me.  Actually one thing that probably helped me decide to move northwest to Madison was the discovery that Madison, too, has orange street lights. 

Chicago was the center of the universe as far as my family was concerned.  Perhaps 80% of my family and close cousins lived here.  But with my grandparents and my mom having passed away, an uncle, aunt and cousins having moved elsewhere and my dad now living in Albuquerque, only my sister remains here in the Chicago area, along with some third cousins.

I’m in my sister’s apartment right now.  My dad’s visiting here, too.  We actually exchanged Christmas gifts last night because she and her boyfriend headed out this morning to see her boyfriend’s parents in Michigan.  We saw some cousins on the South Side a couple of nights ago and my dad and I will be seeing some other cousins on Christmas  Day. 

I’m back in the neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side where I used to live and where my sister still lives.  It’s funny.  After nearly five years in Wisconsin, I don’t get the same feeling about Chicago being home for me like I once did.  I feel like I have returned to Chicago, but I haven’t returned home.  I’m not being immersed in my past, but it’s an interesting and illuminating visit to my past.  The details of which I will save for another post…

the day the sun crossed the equator

Soundtrack in my head: Spiritualized, “The Slide Song”

As I’d written in a previous post, I began attending events at the Madison Baha’i Center back in August. This began after years of accumulated issues and concerns with the Sukyo Mahikari spiritual organization I’d been involved with for the previous eleven years.

I re-read a copy of J.L. Esslemont’s “Baha’u’llah and the New Era,” and it resonated with me like it hadn’t before. I’d had a daily habit of reading Mahikari teachings for a few minutes each day. A couple weeks after I first started going to the Baha’i Center, I started to read Mahikari and Baha’i books side by side to see if I could get a sense of which path was more of a reflection of my understanding of God, the spiritual life, the purpose of religion in this world, our current world situation and what felt…right.

After a few weeks of this, I was beginning to think that the Baha’i Faith was speaking to me more than my path of the previous eleven years was, but I wasn’t anything close to sure about the right direction to go. At that time, I’d been coming to the Mahikari Center–located at the outer edges of the Chicago area–about once a month. So I decided that at my next trip to the Mahikari Center, I’d also visit the Baha’i Temple, which is also in the Chicago area, and see if that would give me a clearer idea.

I reserved a rental car on the morning of Saturday, September 22nd, but when I got to the rental car place, my credit card didn’t go through. Apparently, an online payment to my credit card that I made several days before didn’t post. I had to be a bit assertive in order for them to let me rent the car with my debit card. I sort of felt bad about it as I drove away. I felt kind of anxious as I began driving towards Chicago.

I usually take US Hwy 12 to Illinois Route 59 to get to the Mahikari center. Highway 12 is a beautiful drive through southeast Wisconsin, with lots of rolling hills. The leaves on the trees were still green, but splashes of autumn color were starting to appear here and there. But it didn’t diminish my anxiety too much. And it increased with the Chicago traffic.

My visit to the Mahikari Center was no different than any other visit. I made my offering, offered a prayer, and gave and received Light. To anyone at the center, my visit there was no different from any other. Inwardly, however I felt a lot of turmoil because of the fact that I was considering leaving. I knew it was possible that this might be my last visit to the center. The person I gave Light to was a friend I helped guide into Mahikari five years ago. I found this to be kind of ironic. I received Light from someone else, said one more prayer, said my normal goodbyes to people and left without any fanfare.

It’s not an easy drive from the Mahikari Center in Streamwood to the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette. It’s 34 miles, and most of it is side roads. I posted in an earlier blog entry how I do not like driving in Chicago, and the combination of that and the inner turmoil I was feeling turned my drive into a white-knuckled journey.

It’s a little hard to explain what I felt and why I felt it. I have always felt that there are multiple legitimate spiritual paths, so on the outset it shouldn’t seem that questioning my current path and considering a new one might be stressful. But Mahikari has very definite and specific teachings about the spiritual world—teachings which made sense to me for many years, and which I had accepted as fact. I tend to throw myself quite heavily into whatever endeavor I consider important. But I’d been increasingly questioning the organization for the last four years. The inner conflict I felt had been quite stressful for me. Seriously considering leaving was even more unsettling. I think I understand now how difficult it was for my mother to leave the Catholic Church.

I was still white-knuckled and shallow-breathed when I arrived at the Baha’i Temple. I wish I could say that I was overjoyed at my arrival there, but I wasn’t. I went through the exhibits in the Visitors Center, and walked into the Cornerstone Room where ‘Abdul Baha, the son of the Baha’i prophet Baha’u’llah, first laid the cornerstone of the building in 1912. Then I saw a film about the Baha’i Faith and the building of the temple. Finally, I went into the bookstore there, looked around, and ended up striking a conversation with the bookstore attendant. It turns out that she went to the University of Illinois in Urbana like I did, though a little later than me. It was at the university that I was first introduced to the Baha’i Faith. She talked about having to overcome worries of leaving her childhood faith for the Baha’i Faith. I told her I could relate.

I went up into the main floor of the temple, a place for prayer and quiet contemplation. I’d been there about three or four times before. One of those visits I remember very well was December 27, 1989. On that day, while in the temple, I decided *against* joining the Baha’i Faith, even though I’d previously planned on making that declaration on January 1, 1990. It was funny, because I felt a lot of energy in the temple on that day, a lot of warmth and love from God while in that room, but I still felt that it wasn’t the appropriate path at the time. Now, eighteen years later, I was in the temple again, praying and reflecting. I hoped to feel that sense of love and warmth again but I think I had too much on my mind. Nevertheless, looking up at the high ceiling and the intricate stonework within the temple made me feel more calm.

Then I went to Gillson Beach, which is a beach along Lake Michigan a few blocks from the temple. It has always been my favorite beach in the Chicago area. I like it because it faces more north than east, away from the lights of the city, giving it a different and more mysterious vibe altogether. Because the shoreline juts west, the sun sometimes looks almost like it’s setting over the lake during the longest days of the year even though the lake generally faces east. When I lived in Chicago, I would frequently go up there and write in my journal. A Mahikari friend and I once went up there on a summer night and exchanged Light on the beach, and we saw a shooting star in the sky shortly afterwards.

Now here I was again at Gillson Beach with the dome of the Baha’i Temple behind me in the distance–this time as a Wisconsin resident writing 150 miles from my home.  Nevertheless, Lake Michigan was once again witness to the many conversations going on in my head, and boy, they were talking up a storm this time.  I sat down and wrote, and tried to put into words all of the anxious feelings I had. The sun disappeared behind the horizon, and it began to get dark, cool, and mosquito-ey. Then about a half hour later, I suddenly I had this strong feeling that I should walk into the temple once again. And write. And pray.

I walked back into the temple, and began a new journal entry with, “Hello temple my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.” I wrote a little while longer and then put my journal down and started to pray. I prayed about my confusion and fear. Gradually, I became aware of a warm and loving presence. I began to feel that I was loved and understood. Was this something I was creating in my own mind? Who is to say? I tend to be cautious now when it comes to declaring spiritual experiences like these. But one thing that is clear—the feelings of love and understanding that I felt emanating there were not ones I sensed during the literally thousands of prayers I offered before the Goshintai at a number of Mahikari Centers around the country.

In any case, I walked out of the temple feeling a greater sense of joy than I had in a long time. As I walked out, I ran into the bookstore attendant I’d talked to a couple of hours before. Since there’s no talking allowed in the temple, we just exchanged knowing smiles. I walked down the stairs and sat by one of the fountains in the temple gardens. The fountains glowed luminescent blue in the night air and the sound of the rushing water calmed me even more. I sat there, not really wanting to leave, but knowing that I had 150 miles to drive home. Right before I left, I looked up at the temple and noticed the attendant looking down at me. Perhaps she could sense the intensity of emotion I felt.

And then I drove home.

The next day was the autumnal equinox, which is the time when the sun crosses the equator and the nights become longer than the days. This seemed appropriate. I knew that I wasn’t ready to declare myself a Baha’i just yet. I’m still not ready at this point. But I knew a line had been crossed. Except that things have felt like they’ve been getting brighter, not darker. From that day on, I stopped reading the Mahikari Teachings because I knew that my belief in the Baha’i Faith was now stronger than my belief in the Mahikari Teachings. And the experience convinced me that I was not going through a period of spiritual disturbance, but spiritual transformation–which is still occurring as I write this…

white knuckles tightly gripping the steering wheel in Chicago

Soundtrack in my head:  The Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane”

You could describe me as a veteran city driver.  I could always hold my own on Chicago’s roads and elsewhere.  

I had little problem merging over four lanes on the Kennedy Expressway in less than a minute to ensure that I was heading towards O’Hare Airport and not Milwaukee. Like every good Chicagoan, I’d pass slower drivers by getting into the right lane at stop lights—the lane intended for right turns but not marked as such–and then flooring it when the light turned green.  In addition, I lived in Los Angeles for the better part of a year, and drove up and down the 405 Freeway every day during that time.  In L.A., letting someone else merge ahead of you is a sign of weakness.  I even drove in Manhattan once and didn’t think it was too bad.

But when I moved to Wisconsin, a funny thing happened.  I found myself driving among polite, civilized people.  And I haven’t been the same since.

I didn’t realize the change until nine months after I moved to Wisconsin.   I was driving the Kennedy Expressway between O’Hare and the Loop, when suddenly I realized I was nervous.  Not just nervous, but kind of freaking out.   The average speed around me was 70 mph, despite the posted speed limit of 55.  People would cut in and out of lanes suddenly and often without warning. A couple of people were doing this at 90 mph.  

I found myself wanting to say, “These people are crazy!  These people are crazy!  Where did these people come from?”  As if I had never driven among such people before.  As if I hadn’t driven a lot like them.

Ever since then, I’ve felt the same way every time I go to Chicago.  I keep on hoping I won’t have to go too far into the metropolitan area.  Most of my visits are in the Elgin area, so I get to miss most of Chicago traffic.  

One thing that could explain my newfound fear is that I did have a car accident shortly after moving to Madison.  My little Geo Metro was totaled when a car turned left in front of me at an intersection—luckily, neither of us were hurt.  And right before my last car died, I nearly spun out on John Nolen Drive—along with everyone else around me—because someone municipal or county worker forgot to salt that stretch of roadway during rush hour. So I think perhaps I’ve become more aware of my mortality.  But maybe a little too aware.

Actually one aspect of Chicago driving that is superior to driving in Wisconsin is the efficiency in which road crews plow and salt the roads.  This is because in 1979, Michael Bilandic, the incumbent mayor of Chicago lost an election when blizzards exposed weaknesses in the city’s snow removal system and the city shut down for days.  It’s quite rare for an incumbent Chicago mayor to lose an election, particularly a “Machine” connected politician like Bilandic.  So ever since then, every municipal and county official in the Chicago area has had the fear of God in him or her if so much as a single snowflake falls.  I wish that state, county and municipal officials here in Wisconsin had that fear.

Nevertheless, I’ll take Wisconsin driving over Chicago driving most days.  (Even if many Wisconsinites seem allergic to their own turn signals.)  

Last Saturday night, I came back to Madison in a rental car from Chicago at midnight.  I was just in time to see West Johnson Street backed up because of the Wisconsin Badgers football game letting out.  At one point I found myself in a game of chicken with someone reluctant to let me merge. I outmaneuvered the person.  But I didn’t necessarily feel too good about it.

Ah, civilization.

in a city twice as big and twice as old

Soundtrack in my head:  Let’s Active, “Edge of the World”

I knew that Albuquerque would supplant Chicago as my second home once my parents moved out there.  My parents met and got married there, one set of grandparents were out there, and my aunt and her partner have been out there for a number of years.  I always thought I knew the city fairly well, but this most recent time out there, I got a stronger flavor for the city than I had before.  

Albuquerque is built in a valley, with the Rio Grande River cutting a north to south path through the area.  On the east side are the Sandia Mountains, with elevations as high as 10,000 feet.  IMG_0466.jpgOn the west side are bluffs and mesas,  further west there are even a couple of extinct volcanoes.  My grandparents lived in the far eastern section of the city close to the mountains.  From many places in that neighborhood you could see most of the valley, and see the city lights at night.  The east side tends to be more of a bedroom community.  This is the part of the city I was most familiar with for many years.  

My parents bought a house on one of the bluffs to the west, and while they are not next to the edge of the bluff, one can still see both the mountains and the valley and the city lights at night from the family room window (a view for which the photo doesn’t do much justice).  IMG_0481.jpgThey are also a couple of blocks from a park that goes to the edge of the bluff, and from there you can see most of the valley.  

While Madison celebrated its sesquecentennial (150th birthday) last year, Albuquerque celebrated its tricentennnial.  That’s right–300 years.  The city was founded by the Spanish, and still has a strong Spanish and Indian flavor to it.  Adobe style houses and buildings are everywhere.  I couldn’t seem to grow tired of seeing that style of architecture, though I don’t know if my opinion would change if I actually lived in Albuquerque.  I think that it gives neighborhoods an interesting feel.IMG_0478.jpg

And I was impressed by the neighborhoods, realizing that they are more diverse than I thought.  I was somewhat surprised by the urban feel of my parents’ neighborhood–they have been suburban dwellers for the entire time I’ve been alive.  My aunt and her partner live in the South Valley of the city, kind of a semi-rural, semi-industrial area.  There are neighborhoods with lots of ranches.  Not ranch houses,  ranches–the kind that horses run around in.  And there’s a neighborhood, Nob Hill, IMG_0470.jpgthat would resemble Madison’s State Street if State Street were located on a somewhat dusty stretch of Old Route 66. 

One of the unique aspects of Albuquerque is the sheer number of luminarias that dot the city landscape around Christmas.  Who knew that a paperbag, a tea candle and some sand could create incredible beauty in the right quantities.  Check out my sister’s pictures (her camera had better night vision) and see for yourself.

When I got back from Albuquerque,  a couple of housemates commented that I’d gotten a bit of color, presumably from spending time sunning myself on the deck.  Um, sorry–that’s windburn, dudes.  The temperature in Albuquerque has been about the same as Madison over the last month.  And  they’ve gotten several times as much snow as we have this winter.  Of course, it’s usually not that way–it’s usually twenty degrees cooler in Madison than it is right now.  IMG_0474.jpgAnd of course, the Southwest has had a number of winter storms.  The area near the mountains usually gets hit the hardest, as you can see from this photo, but the day that I left, my parents neighborhood was affected.  If this picture doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.  IMG_0485.jpg

As much as I like Albuquerque, I can’t say that I’m tempted to move there at this point.  Despite the many charming neighborhoods, it really is a city of cars. It’s not too much different from places like Phoenix or Las Vegas where you absolutely need a car to get anywhere.  But it’s a heck of a lot more colorful.  Still, Madison has the “community vibe” like no other city I’ve ever lived in.  People here get it when it comes to the feeling of community.  That’s what attracted me here, and that’s what will keep me here–at least for awhile.

ridin’ on the southwest chief (somehow sung to the tune of “city of new orleans”)

Soundtrack in my head: Let’s Active “Blue Line”

My trip on the Southwest Chief Amtrak train to and from Albuquerque did not disappoint. Cross-country train trips like this help define the full and multiple meanings of the word “trip.”  I originally decided to travel by train instead of airplane because it was much cheaper, but I ended up getting a lot more out of the journey than I would have had I flown.

When the train pulled out of Chicago, the weather there was rather weird for December 22nd–rainy and suprisingly warm,–probably in the upper 40’s. Interestingly enough, I discovered that the Southwest Chief train used the same Burlington Northern tracks as the Metra commuter train that I used to take out to my parents’ previous home in LaGrange.  I showed my seatmate the station near my parents’ old house. Now this same set of tracks was serving as the beginning point of my journey to my parents’ new home in Albuquerque.

I was surprised to see the Des Plaines River flooded–extending a few hundred feet into the surrounding woods, and going almost all the way to 1st Avenue. As the urban area gave way to farm fields, I noticed that many of those fields had uncharacteristically big puddles. I think this heavy rain might have been from the same storm system that dumped tons of snow on Colorado and the Plains and shut down down the Denver airport.  The sun went down before we crossed into Iowa, and in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, I only saw occasional lights representing some degree of human existence.

It took the train eight hours to get through Kansas, but the sun came up only as we approached the Colorado border, and when it did, the terrain revealed something new–snow.  Lots of it.  It wasn’t obvious at first until I realized that the utility poles and the barbed wire fences were, um, unusally short.  I watched the sunrise over the snow, and it was interesting to see the gradual change in the terrain from the Kansas plains to the Colorado plains, and watch those plains get gradually more hilly until finally we began to see some mountains. 

The view became even more spectacular as we approached New Mexico. Tufts of desert brush began to poke through the snow, giving the snow an orangish color as one looked in the distance. IMG_0463.jpgThe train snaked its way through the Raton Pass, and within one hour of Albuquerque, I recognized the shape of the Sandia Mountains–from the north and the east, as opposed to the west and south views from Albuquerque that I was used to. As we approached Albuquerque, it was interesting to see the little dusty haciendas sitting isolated in the middle of a sea of desert brush.   I watched from the observation car as Indian pueblos and little towns eventually gave way way to the city of Albuquerque. It felt like we were looking into everyone’s backyard in a way, kind of seeing the reality of the lives of these people as opposed to the Disney-esque setting in which most towns and cities want to present themselves. I saw a lot of backyards that had pick-up trucks in various states of disassembly , but this authenticity made these little New Mexico towns appeal to me that much more.

But one of the best aspects of this trip was the opportunity to interact with people. I talked extensively with a native of Taos, NM who just quit her job in Boston, and was travelling the country via rail before settling down and figuring out her next move. I spoke with another woman who had a flight from New York to Albuquerque cancelled by the snowstorms in Denver, and after two days stranded in the NYC airport she decided to take the train, which meant she was arriving in Albuquerque four days later than expected. There were a lot of Amish people on the train, speaking German with each other. At one point, we observed a card game between an African American man and an Amish woman. As a joke the man pretended to be hyper-competitive in the game–he’d slap down the cards and yell “Boo-ya!” when he won, and when he lost, he’d accuse the Amish woman of cheating at cards, which provoked a lot of laughter all around, including among the Amish people there.

On the way back to Chicago, I ate more at the dining car rather than rely on the microwaved delicacies at the snack bar.  Because of the small size of the dining car, strangers would be seated with strangers, and so I engaged in intresting conversations with a couple Chicago natives from L.A. who were on the train for the experience and planning on flying back to L.A. once we reached Chicago.  I also spoke with a musician from Memphis, and a student from Loyola University in Chicago who was minoring in Islamic studies.  One man kept on gathering a crowd around him because he had a laptop that continuously showed our current position on the map–eventually he simply left his laptop in the lounge car for anyone wanting to see where we were.

There was a minor incident late on the ride home when the conductor mistakenly seated a couple in my seat.  But nearby passengers I hadn’t even talked with before spoke up on my behalf, describing how the couple was being belligerent in insisting on sitting together and somehow pushing the conductor to seat them in my seat (perhaps due to the mysterious disappearance of a slip of paper that was supposed to hold my seat for me).  Another conductor found a different seat for me, and a couple other passengers in the area checked on me to make sure that the conductor found me a good seat.

The day that I left Albuquerque back for the Midwest, it had been steadily snowing for about four hours.  I’d heard on the news that the Denver airport was shut down again.  The Southwest Chief was a little late, and when I got on the train, I learned we were being re-routed.  Passengers with destinations in northern New Mexico and Colorado had to get off in Albuquerque and stay for the night.  Rather than go up north through the mountains of New Mexico, which were being socked hard with snow, we went south 30 miles to Belen,  cut east through Clovis, then northeast to Amarillo TX, and then straight north through Oklahoma up to Kansas.   The east Central part of New Mexico is not mountainous and in some ways more resembles the flat grasslands of the Texas Panhandle, and all of this was being covered in snow.  This part of the state is also very empty, and it’s possible to ride one or two hours without seeing any signs of human habitation.  The snow was coming down so hard that IMG_0488.jpgvisibility was maybe one or two thousand feet, and sometimes I felt like I was in a airplane flying through the clouds rather than riding a train on the ground.  The sunset acted as a dimmer switch for this winter scene, as white gradually became more and more grey and the terrain disappeared into complete blackness.

As we passed through Fort Sumter and Clovis, NM, the lights of those towns revealed thinner snow, probably due to the lower elevation.  But I could frequently see emergency lights on two-lane roads running parallel to the tracks, due to some unfortunate souls losing control of their cars in the slippery conditions.  Right about the time we crossed into Texas, the snow gave way to freezing rain, and eventually just rain.  We stopped in the railyards of Amarillo to switch diesel engines and I could tell it was very wet and windy.  I woke up in Kansas again, but this time there was no sign of snow.  I felt like time had gone backwards, with the sun having set in January and risen in November, and I could still see dead leaves at the bases of bare trees.  It was like this all the way to Chicago. 

Amazingly, we only arrived in Chicago four hours late on what normally would have been a 25-hour journey.  This was a feat considering the fact that we were going two states out of our way.  We were using freight lines to get through, not standard Amtrak routes.  Burlington Northern-Santa Fe owned the tracks, not Amtrak, and had to balance Amtrak’s needs with that of the freight carriers. The only issue with Amtrak was that passengers didn’t always know what was going on.   In Kansas City, boarding passengers complained that they had not been told of the four-hour delay even that morning, even though the decision had been made fourteen hours before to re-route the train.  And my father called me on my cellphone because the Amtrak website did not indicate what happened to the train.

But I think this performance still compared very favorably compared to the airlines.  I keep thinking of the woman in New York who was stranded in the New York airport for two days before giving up and taking Amtrak, just because she was unfortunate enough to have a connecting flight in Denver.  My aunt and her partner did not have Christmas dinner with us because they were in Puerto Vallarta, and the airline told them that they either had to go through Denver or go with a different airline, so they waited.  It does not appear that airlines cooperated with each other by offering the use of each other’s hubs, and so the entire system ground to a halt, with the snow in Denver creating delays in most of the major airports around the country.  Let’s hear it for airline deregulation.

When I got off the train, got my baggage, and got upstairs to Canal Street, it felt remarkably warm but windy–probably in the upper 40’s or low 50’s again.  My father called me on my cellphone and told me that I got out of New Mexico just in time–Albuquerque was buried under with twelve inches of snow.  It is rare that Albuquerque gets any snow, but so far the city seems to have gotten about five times as much snow as Madison has this winter.

I boarded the Van Galder bus for the last leg of my trip home and was surprised to see an Amish couple that I had seen in the Albuqerque Amtrak station.  I also saw a woman that had sat next to me on the initial Van Galder bus to Chicago.  Funny how these things happen.

Not only did I see the country and talk with a number of interesting people, but I may very well have gotten to  and from Albuquerque faster than if I had flown.  I think I’m going to try to take the train more often if I have the time and schedule flexibility to do so.