Being Terrified by the Unfamiliar

I have never felt classic culture shock – the type which goes in stages such as ‘honeymoon period’ ‘frustration’ ‘acceptance’ etc. (some models of culture shock have four stages, some have five, but they tend to be similar). The closest I came was when I lived in Mountain View, and I’ve even told a lot of people that that is when I felt classic culture shock, but now I think … if so, it was a really mild case of culture shock. I think at this point, I had been trying to fit my experiences in Mountain View into the culture shock model just to find any way to relate to the idea of multi-stage culture shock.

I recall, about six months after I moved to Taiwan, I was talking with another American, and she said ‘oh, you haven’t felt culture shock yet, but you will, it will hit you.’

In the three years I was in Taiwan, I never experienced anything like the four-stage or five-stage models of culture shock.

I recently read Pacific Crest Trials by Zach Davis and Carly Moree, which talks about how to psychologically prepare for long distance thru hikes (i.e. hiking over 3000 km on foot). Though it does not explicitly link the mindset of thru hikers to the culture shock models, it seems to be describing something pretty similar. They even use the term ‘honeymoon period’. And it makes sense that adjusting to life on a thru-hike would be like adjusting to life in a completely different culture. That is, first of all, it is a different culture (hiker culture is very distinct), but also, even though most people who do thru-hikes in the United States grew up in the United States, and some people do them in their states of residence/origin, life on the trail is really different from life at home, even if one’s home just happens to be a trail town (a trail town is a town near one of the trails frequented by thru-hikers – for example, Big Bear City in California is a ‘trail town’).

An example of how life is different is, even though most hikers carry watches, people generally do not live by the clock when they are on trail (unless they have to go into town and be there when a post office is open or something). Water is generally only available once every few miles (or less – one might sometimes travel 20+ miles between water sources, depending on which trail and under what circumstances). Food – well, a little foraging is sometimes possible, but generally food is only available in towns. I could keep going, but I think you get it by now that life in trail!United-States is different from life in most of the United States.

Anyway, so if I don’t go through classic culture shock, what do I experience?

I remember, when I was a girl, I dropped something on a sidewalk near my home. I wanted to go back and fetch it. My parents told me to go by myself to fetch it. I had never walked outside without adult supervision before. I was astonished that my parents thought it was okay for me to go outside by myself. Yes, it was my neighborhood, so the odds of me becoming lost were practically zero, and though people occasionally get murdered when they are outside in my neighborhood (in fact, IIRC, there had been a murder on the very street where I went to retrieve whatever I had dropped), the odds of myself becoming the victim of a violent crime were really low. But since I had never done it before – I had it ingrained in my habits (at that age) that I do not go outside without an adult – I was really nervous and terrified.

Nowadays, if you suggested that it would be a bad idea for me to go outside on my own without the supervision of my elders, I would be baffled. I’m a freaking adult right now, I don’t need to be escorted just to walk around my own neighborhood.

That is the pattern I experience. When I am thrust into an environment that is too unfamiliar – especially if I am alone – I experience terror.

I experienced the terror in Taiwan – twice, once when I first arrived in Taiwan, and the second time, when I moved to Taoyuan City. I liked the idea of moving to Taiwan when it was far in the future, but when it became imminent – and then it happened – I was frightened. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the United States by myself, and I had no return ticket. What made me stick with it – both staying in Taiwan and staying in Taoyuan – was that those decisions were difficult to reverse. That made me tough it out until the terror passed and I had adapted.

By contrast, when I hiked up Ishizuchi in Japan years later, I had read about how scary the ascent to the highest peak is (in fact, most hikers do not go to the highest point because it is so scary). When I got there I found … much of the path is a slanted uneven rocky scramble, with a sharp drop of hundreds of feet on one side – and it did not look that scary to me. I had done so many hikes with similar (or more extreme conditions) in Taiwan, that the final scramble of Ishizuchi felt familiar – it even gave me a sense of nostalgia. In short, I was not scared of that slope because it felt familiar to me.

This is me in Taiwan (yes, I am the person in this photo). Specifically, this is me at Wuliaojian.

Last year, I went on three section hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail. On none of those trips did I complete my planned itinerary.

One time, my choice to quit was very sensible – there was a heat wave (temperatures over 90℉ / 33℃), and the next section of the trail was steep, uphill, exposed to the south (i.e. very little shade), and all of the water sources for the next 14 miles were dry. I have ZERO regret about quitting at that point. I still want to hike that section, but I want to do it when it’s cooler and the water sources are actually sources of water. Besides, I had already hiked over fifty miles during that trip.

But the other two times? It wasn’t due to trail conditions, it was because I was not prepared for the psychological shock. I’ve read a lot of hikers can get through the beginning of the hikes on the ‘honeymoon’ euphoira and the psychological shock hits them later, whereas for me, it seems the shock is front-loaded.

I do not like admitting this publicly on my blog, because it runs counter to how I see myself – or rather, how I wish I were. I like thinking of myself as intrepid. These experiences do not give me the self-image I want.

Well, when something is hard to do, and you want to get better at it, it’s sometimes a good idea to TRY AGAIN. And that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m going to attempt another section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Specifically, I plan to hike from Barrel Spring (it’s literally just a spring near a road – it’s four miles away from the nearest town) to the border with Mexico.

It will be a backpacking trip unlike anything I’ve tried before. I’ve never hiked through a desert before, so yes, I will carry a lot of water, but at least the slopes are fairly gentle in this section, and because I will go south, I will hike uphill on the northern (cooler) slopes. Also, I’ve never had to deal with temperature swings of 25-90℉ (-4-33℃) within 24 hours while sleeping outdoors, so that will be interesting. I look forward to the novelty and challenge, while I am also aware that I might not like it at all.

For some reason, I am fixated on the danger of rattlesnakes. This is bizarre because Taiwan has snakes which are deadlier than rattlesnakes (most rattlesnake bites will not kill an adult human, even without treatment – Taiwan has snakes whose bite kills any human who does not get timely treatment), and the Taiwanese venomous snakes do not even warn you of their presence with a rattle, and yet I was never scared of them. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised in a culture which fears ‘hundred-pacers’, whereas I was raised in a culture which fears rattlesnakes. Rattlesnake bite is far from the most common reason why hikers need medical evacuation in this section (the most common reason is dehydration – which, thankfully, is preventable with good planning), but it’s still what has grabbed my imagination. Oh well, hopefully my paranoia will at least make my odds of being bit by a rattlesnake even lower (and yes, I have a plan for what to do if I do get bitten by a rattlesnake). What I’ve read is that many hikers freak out when they first see a rattlesnake, but after the third or fourth time they encounter a rattlesnake, it’s much less terrifying.

So, why am I doing this hike if I expect it to be uncomfortable, and suspect I may hate it? First of all, there are my ego issues (described above), but if that was all there was to it, I would stop myself because there are easier ways to address ego issue. I am also really curious what it is like to hike in a desert, and even if I never do it again, I want to know what it feels like. Furthermore, I am fascinated by hiker psychology, and while one can learn about hiker psychology just by reading books, it’s not the same as first-hand experience (in particular, a book cannot tell me how *I* will react in certain conditions). I also hope that, maybe, just maybe, I’ll gain a little mental resilience which I may need later in life. Finally, I enjoy hanging out with the type of people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and the best place to find them is, obviously, the Pacific Crest Trail.

Why am I posting all of this on my blog. Remember how I mentioned the book Pacific Crest Trials, about how to psychologically cope with the trail? One of their recommended techniques is to tell everyone, and to announce your hike on your website, so that peer pressure will help you get through the tough parts. I’m trying this technique right now. I’ll see if implicit peer pressure will help me deal with the psychological shock better than before. But I’m not sure it will work, since most people I know think that hiking a hundred miles through desert mountains is so far out there that they aren’t going to think less of me if I do not complete the hundred miles – even my parents, who are calmer about this and find it less impressive than anyone else I know, wouldn’t hold it against me.

Some Last Thoughts on “The Mississippi Journey”

Prior to last month, I had only been to 3-5 of the 50 states of the USA. I was born in California, I had definitely been to Oregon and Florida, and … well, I had spent a few hours on the Nevada side of the California/Nevada border when I was eleven years old, and I had spent one night in New York City while waiting for a connecting flight when I was seven years old (and no, I did not get to see any famous places in NYC, with the exception of the airport). Some people say that counts as visiting Nevada/New York, some people don’t, which is why I list it as 3-5 states.

One of the earliest posts on this blog is “From a Corner, Not a Continent”. That very much describes the mentality I had when I was in Asia. I lost track of how many times a Taiwanese person would say ‘so, since you are in Taiwan, that means you’ve travelled everywhere in the United States, right?” to which I would reply “ha ha ha ha, that is ridiculous, the United States is way too big.” Many Taiwanese people were very surprised to learn that they had travelled the United States more extensively than I had.

However, last month, I went on “The Mississippi Journey”. One of my main goals was to get to know the United States better, to know a bit more about the continent beyond the corner (another one of my main goals was to meet someone in St. Louis). I stayed overnight in beds in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, and Illinois. That means I doubled or tripled the number of states I have been to. I also passed through (by train) Arizona, New Mexico, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Why the emphasis on the (Deep) South? Because I was travelling in December. There are other regions of the United States I would very much like to visit (New England, for example) but I did not feel that December was the time to do it.

In my blog posts, I noted a lot of the differences among the places that I visited. Different places, of course, are different – travelling would not be so worthwhile if every place were exactly the same. However, there are also things that all of the places I visited – as well as California – have in common. It strengthened my identity as an American (which is quite a contrast with the “From a Corner, Not a Continent” post).

Out of all of the places I visited on this trip, the places I would be most inclined to visit again are New Orleans and Mississippi, though in Mississippi I would probably choose to visit towns other than Natchez and Vicksburg so I could see different parts of the state. There is also a high chance I’ll end up visiting Chicago again sooner or later, which I hope will be enjoyable as my first Chicago visit.

In any case, I am not sure when I will travel next, nor where I will go, but this trip has definitely whetted my appetite for more.

A Theme from my Recent Travels: Race

As I think back on my recent trip (you can find all of the posts about it under the tag ‘The Mississippi Journey’) one of the things which stands out is how often I noticed (and while blogging, commented) upon race. I did not expect that to be one of the themes of my trip.

Maybe I was so surprised because I am white – part of white privilege is being able to ignore race in ways that non-white people in the United States cannot.

Also, in my previous travels, I have always tended to notice race when it was different from the mix of races which are different from what I am used to. For example, when I was living in Taiwan, I got used to not seeing many other white people, sometimes going weeks without seeing another white person, so when I went to Osaka and Kyoto (literally the very first two places I went after I moved out of Taiwan) I was blown away by how many white people there were, and in my subconscious, I still think of Kyoto as ‘a place full of white people’ (I probably would not have had that impression of Kyoto if I had gone there straight from the United States rather than straight from Taiwan). Indeed, I remember that when I met people visiting Taiwan, a common reaction was “where are all of the white people?” and my response was “this is Asia, why would you expect to see lots of white people here?” and then they would tell me that there are way more white people in Beijing/Shanghai/Tokyo/wherever. Since Taiwan is the first place in east Asia I ever went, I did not really understand that there are parts of east Asia which have a lot more white people until I went to some of those places myself.

Another thing which stood out during my travels was different levels of racial segregation. Granted, I was a tourist, not a researcher – not only did I not do any careful data gathering, I was focused on sightseeing, not research, and as such my observations are very limited and almost certainly not representative. That said, I saw the highest levels of racial integrations in the following places (I consider racial integration to be people of different races interacting with each other on relatively equal terms):

1. Downtown Chicago (I didn’t go anywhere outside of downtown Chicago, and based on what I’ve read about Chicago, there is a lot of racial segregation by neighborhood)
2. New Orleans (all neighborhoods I visited, though I mostly went to touristy areas, and I also understand that I probably would have seen more racial segregation if I had taken a more extensive look at the city)
3. Downtown San Antonio

Notice a pattern? I tended to see the most racial integration in downtown areas of major cities. Even in Memphis, which has some really obvious racial segregation, I observed more racial integration in downtown Memphis than in other parts of Memphis.

Actually, I take that back. The place where I saw the most racial integration, hands down, was in the sightseeing lounge of the California Zephyr. The place where I saw the second highest level of racial integration was in the sightseeing lounge of the Sunset Limited. Apparently, Amtrak has higher levels of racial integration than downtown areas of cities, probably because Amtrak passengers are racially diverse and it is harder for people on a train to avoid each other than for people in a neighborhood to avoid each other.

Where did I observe the highest level of racial segregation? Vicksburg, Mississippi, and St. Charles County, Missouri. I think it would be really hard to be in Vicksburg, and then be in St. Charles County the next week, and not notice race.

Vicksburg, as I mentioned, is about 60% African-American, yet based on what I saw, I would have guessed it was 90% African-American. In the neighborhood where I slept, nearly everyone was black, and most of the people who weren’t black were some other kind of POC. I walked through neighborhood after neighborhood in Vicksburg where it seemed that everyone was black. In downtown Vicksburg, I saw both black and white people, but not in the same places (I don’t count because I was an out-of-town visitor). For example, at the Rail Depot Museum, everyone was white, and at the Lower Mississippi Museum, everyone (except myself) was black, even though they are just a block away from each other. The retail area on Washington Street is very white, but blocks away, there are black-owned businesses. The only place I saw black and white people interacting with each other (excluding myself) was at the bus station – most of the people there were black, but there were a few white passengers other than myself. I did not ask anyone in Vicksburg about this since asking about racial segregation did not occur to me until I was gone, and I don’t know what would have been the best way to ask about it anyway. I would also like to note that nobody in Vicksburg, of any race, made me feel unwelcome in their neighborhood.

St. Charles County, of course, was totally white. I mostly stayed in my host’s house, so I did not get to observe as much as when I was in Vicksburg, but whenever I got out, I never saw any non-white people.

Now, lest one think that Vicksburg is so racially segregated because it is in Mississippi, I would like to note that I observed significantly more racial integration in Natchez, which is also in Mississippi. I wouldn’t call it a paradise of racial integration (notice that I did not put it in my list of most racially integrated places), but I did observe white and black people working side by side in the same business doing the same work, and in Natchez it was not obvious to me whether I was in a ‘white’ or ‘black’ neighborhood the way it was in Vicksburg, Memphis, or St. Charles County, and generally, I saw a lot more white and black people talking to each other in Natchez than in some other places.

Now, these observations are probably partially based on random chance – maybe I just happened to observe the less racially segregated aspects of Natchez, and the more racially segregated aspects of Vicksburg, and that if I did proper research, I would find that my initial impressions were inaccurate. Everything I say in this post should be understood as a record of my impressions, not an accurate depiction of any place I visited.

Anyway, did I learn anything from my observations of racial relations during my recent trip? It’s not so much that I learned something new (well, I learned a lot of details about, say, the history of the civil rights movement, but that is besides the point) as that in deepened my understanding of things I knew something about before. For example, I knew that we are a racially/ethnically diverse nation, but actually visiting different places and see a lot of the differences myself drives that lesson deeper, and some aspects of racial integration/segregation are easier to see as an out-of-town outsider than as a local.

Riding the Zephyr through the Mountains

I managed to resurrect my camera temporarily and take a few pictures in the Rocky Mountains

I managed to resurrect my camera temporarily and take a few pictures in the Rocky Mountains

I took the California Zephyr, the United States’ longest passenger train route (well, if you combine the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, that is actually longer, but whatever) from its origin in Chicago to its terminus in Emeryville (which is very close to San Francisco) for a few reasons. First of all, I was travelling in winter, so I figured it was not the best time of year to take intermediate stops. Second, I had never been to the Rocky Mountains at all before, nor had I been to the Sierra Nevada in winter. Third, I wanted the experience of taking the longest possible passenger train ride in the United States (excluding the Texas Eagle / Sunset Limited combination) nonstop.

In my post on the Sunset Limited I commented on the demographics of the train passengers. The California Zephyr’s demographics are a bit different. For starters, there were a lot more white people, particularly east of Denver. West of Denver, the train passengers became more racially mixed, including Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans, as well as some visitors from outside the United States. However, the most represented group of all on the train were retirees – older people who had quit worker, and had time to spend on trains. They were also well-represented on the Sunset Limited, but based on my observation, it seemed that there were more retirees on the California Zephyr than on the Sunset Limited.

After leaving Denver, we entered the ‘Tunnel District’. We passed through 42 tunnels (I did not keep count, but some of the passengers did, and they counted them out loud). The train had to make sweeping curves to get up into the mountains. During one of those sweeping curves, we passed a large herd of wild elk which were only about fifteen feet away from the train tracks. The mountains facing Denver, suffice to say, were covered in snow, with some coniferous trees as well.

Now, way back in Union Station in Chicago, I had felt some strain on my back, probably from several weeks of travelling with luggage, but I thought little of it. After all, how much strain would I put on my back while I sat on a train for a couple of days. HA HA HA HA HA HA. During my second day on the train, my back felt terrible, so much so that I ended up taking ibuprofen (it had been more than ten years since I had taken ibuprofen, or any other painkiller). My back was probably already in a delicate condition due to hauling luggage, and the sleeping position I had taken that night had tipped it over the edge. I had never had a problem before sleeping in coach – I had found decent sleeping positions – but the sleeping position I had taken that night had been a mistake. Never again.

We eventually went through the Moffat Tunnel, which is the highest altitude point of the entire Amtrak system (its elevation is 9,239 ft./2,816 m above sea level).

This looked much more beautiful in person. I had to point the camera upward at one of the windows in the roof of the train car because the cliffs are that high above the train tracks.

This looked much more beautiful in person. I had to point the camera upward at one of the windows in the roof of the train car because the cliffs are that high above the train tracks.

The tunnel district was lovely – and we passed right next to a ski resort (the Colorado residents told me that the ski resort had been hurting until that week because, before the recent snows, there had not been enough snow to ski). However, my favorite scenery in the Rockies was along the Colorado River. The train goes by a section which is only accessible by rail and by boat – no roads. The river flows even in winter, and it cuts a groove into the rocky mountain terrain (there’s a reason it’s called the ‘Rocky’ Mountains). Incidently, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the Colorado River. I enjoyed watching the soaring cliffs, frosted with snow, and seeing the rocks change from grey to brown to red to white.

The sun set around the time we arrived in Glenwood Springs. That meant I did not get the greatest view of Glenwood Canyon, but maybe I’ll see it another time. It sure would have been nice to take a dip in the hot springs!

After Grand Junction, I went to sleep, woke up when the train arrived at Provo, Utah, stayed awake until the train arrived in Salt Lake City at around midnight, then went back to sleep. There was snow in Utah, but not as much as Colorado.

The next morning, I woke up and found out that I was in Nevada. I really liked the Nevada scenery. The grassy valley was yellow, with a dusting of snow. Meanwhile, the hills looming over the valley on both sides were coated with white snow, with little tufts of yellow poking out.

I met some of the young people who boarded the train in Salt Lake City. Since I had planned on being on the train for more than 50 hours, the fact that the train was a few hours behind schedule did not matter much to me. However, to people who were waiting to board the train, the fact that the train was a few hours late was a big deal. I heard that the young people waiting for the train in Salt Lake City had had a little party at the train station while they were waiting for the train to show up.

My back was feeling better, but I was glad that this was my last day on the train, especially since I had already eaten all of my tastiest food. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the Nevada scenery and the company.

We got to Reno at around noon, and followed the Truckee River. The Truckee River is unusual in that, unlike most rivers, it never touches any ocean or sea.

Finally, we crossed the Nevada/California border, and stopped in Truckee, the first California stop. Riding this train gave me an appreciation of just how large the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada really are, so crossing the final state border felt like a big deal to me. In Reno, we also got a national parks guide, who commented on the scenery we were passing through.

The train passed through some snow sheds – built to protect the train from snow. Only about 1 mile of train track is still covered with snow shed, but the guide said that, when the trans-continental rail line first opened, there were over twenty miles of snow shed.

As on the Sunset Limited, I got to talk to people of various different walks of life on the train. I still continue to consider this one of the highlights of train travel. In my experience, the only other mode of transportation which encourages strangers to meet and talk with each other to the same degree as the Amtrak trains are long-distance ferries (by long distance, I mean more than four hours).

We passed Donner Lake. It’s big, and it has a nice reflection of the mountains but … I was overwhelmed. Maybe I had had enough of scenery by that point. What I did really enjoy was looking a the trees. The Sierras have beautiful forest, and the trees at high elevations are not like the trees I get to see in my everyday life. They were right next to the train tracks, so I could get a close look at them.

The sun set when we got to Roseville, and by that point, I was so done with being on the train. As more passengers got off, I retreated into my book. Finally, the train got to Emeryville station. I took the bus to San Francisco, and my journey ended.

If you have read all of my travel posts this month, my comment is: wow. I am so flattered that you would be willing to read all of that. I am amazed at how many lengthy travel posts I have written this month, and I am amazed that I had time to write all that. Of course, it was easier to find time to write travel posts when I was actually travelling since it helped me unwind after a day of tourism, whereas it is harder to find time to blog when I am at home!

I might write a post with my concluding thoughts about this travel. Or maybe I won’t because I am moving on with my life. We’ll see.

Towards a Green Christmas (or, the Train Which Was Faster Than Flying)

Photo of Chicago's Union Station by Cuddlesworth. Used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Photo of Chicago’s Union Station by Cuddlesworth. Used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Much as I enjoyed my stay in Chicago, my main purpose for going there in the first place was to catch a train which would take me back home. At first, I had intended to try to make a tight transfer, but I realized that it would have been tricky to get from St. Louis to Chicago in time to catch the train to San Francisco, and if there had been ANY delay on the St. Louis – Chicago leg of the trip, I would mess up the transfer, so I figured it was better to spend one night in Chicago. And then I decided to spend two nights in Chicago, which allowed me to have a full and satisfying day there.

Inside Chicago Union Station. Photo by Chris Filiatreau, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Inside Chicago Union Station. Photo by Chris Filiatreau, used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Chicago Union Station is the busiest long-distance train station in the United States. Just take a look at a map of the Amtrak system, and you’ll notice that an awful lot of train lines converge in Chicago. Most major train stations in the United States only see 2-4 long-distance trains per day, whereas when I was at Chicago Union Station, the train to San Francisco was departing just fifteen minutes after the train to San Antonio, Texas, and likewise, the train going to Seattle was departing just fifteen minutes after the San Francisco train (and the train to Los Angeles was departing shortly after the train to Seattle). This is on top of the fact that there are the local commuter trains called ‘Metra’ (they look like Caltrains, but had more snow on them), as well as the Polar Express (at the train station, whenever I saw a family with young children, there was a 90% chance that they were waiting for the Polar Express). To impose order on this chaos, Chicago Union Station requires boarding passes (unlike any other Amtrak station I have been too), and when it is time to begin boarding, an Amtrak employee will call out the name of the train (for example, “CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR!”), line up the passengers, and then walk them through the maze of the station to the correct platform.

On the train, I briefly talked to a couple who was travelling from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Their train from Philadelphia arrived at Chicago Union Station just five minutes before the train to San Francisco departed. They said that the Amtrak employees arranged for a very speedy transfer which is why they got on the San Francisco-bound train on time. I cannot imagine an airline company arranging a transfer between an arriving and departing airplane within a five minute window.

Speaking of airlines, one of the advantages of train travel is that there is NO SECURITY CHECK. Amtrak employees do check whether or not you have a valid ticket, and they do NOT like unattended luggage/packages in places where luggage/packages are not supposed to be stored, and there are some forbidden items, but generally it is a way easier process than boarding an airplane.

Once on the train, I got to see a lot more of the Illinois landscape. First the train passed through suburbs of Chicago, and then it was a vast expanse of farmland coated in snow, with isolated farmhouses, stands of trees, and streams breaking up the white landscape. During this portion of the trip, I talked with a young woman who was going from Chicago back to her hometown, Burlington, Iowa.

Just about when we arrived in Iowa, the sun set. I was expecting Iowa to be more farmland just like Illinois, so I was surprised to see how industrialized it was (I learned that the train goes through the most industrialized region of Iowa – which makes sense, of course manufacturing and industry would be concentrated along the most important train route).

I stepped off the train in Omaha, Nebraska for a breather. Omaha was no colder than Chicago, but the ground was slick and slippery, so I did not walk far from the train. After Omaha, I went to sleep, and woke up in Colorado.

Colorado, like Illinois and Iowa and Nebraska, was covered in snow, but it looked different. We stopped in Fort Morgan, and then Denver. It was so cold that night that the remote-controlled switches on the tracks were failing, so whenever the train needed to use a switch, it had to stop, the conductor had to get off the train (in the middle of a blizzard), use the manual switch, get back on the train, and then the train could go ahead. Naturally, this led to the train being hours behind schedule.

Denver was also coated in snow, but in a very different way than Chicago. Chicago is liberal in its use of salt, and makes an effort to clear snow. Denver doesn’t bother with salt, or clearing snow. The Colorado residents I met on the train said that all snow in Denver melts within days, a week at most, so they don’t bother with it. They could tell just by looking at Denver that it had snowed at night, because otherwise it would have been much more melted down. One of the most remarkable sights I saw in Denver were people (homeless people, I presume) setting up tents along a riverbank covered with snow. I’ve certainly seen tent encampments of homeless people before, but never amid such snow.

When we got to Denver train station, I was told to stay on the train platform because we didn’t have time to enter the station. Then we stayed in Denver station for more than half an hour. I got to watch snow fall of the platform roofs.

A conductor told me that only 50 passengers were supposed to board the train in Denver. Instead, 130 passengers boarded in Denver. What happened? Well, a bunch of people discovered that taking the train was faster than flying.

Let me explain.

That day, every single flight at Denver International Airport was cancelled, due to to a combination of weather and the incompetence of whoever manages flights at Denver. People on the train told me that, when they tried to reschedule their flights, they were told that they would have to wait at least four days in Denver. The people going to places such as Utah and California figured out that it takes less than four days for a train to get to those places, so they got train tickets. Thus, it turns out that trains are sometimes faster than airplanes.

I will continue with my account of riding the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco Emeryville (which is just a ten minute bus ride away from San Francisco).

Ah, but what is this thing about a ‘Green Christmas’? Well, a lot of people on the train lived in places like Iowa and Colorado, and they were visiting their relatives in California. Why were they going from Iowa/Colorado/Philadelphia/wherever to California, rather than inviting their California relatives to visit them? Because they wanted a “Green Christmas” (they coined the phrase, not me). I suppose the people who wanted a White Christmas took the train going in the opposite direction.

Review: The Steppenwolf Production of The Christians

One of the top things I wanted to do during my brief stay in Chicago was see a live theatre performance. I only had time, practically speaking, to see one show, so I saw The Christians by Lucas Hnath as performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The production itself – the acting, the directing, the set, the lighting, etc. – was excellent. Which, given that Steppenwolf is considered one of the best theatre companies in the entire United States, is not a surprise. Given that the production as a whole is excellent, I do not have much to say about it, so I will discuss the play itself instead.

In the play, a pastor has grown a storefront church into a megachurch, and they have just paid down the debt they incurred to build their large gleaming building. As soon as the debt is paid, the paster comes out with a sermon which claims that a) there is no hell and that b) belief in hell creates divisions with people, therefore Christians ought to drop their belief in hell to be better able to spread the word.

The play briefly discusses the Christian theological basis for both the ‘hell exists’ and ‘hell does not exist’ hypotheses, but really, the story is about how this impacts the people rather than about the dogma. The pastor claimed that belief in hell creates gaps between people which makes communication impossible yet, ironically, by declaring his lack of belief in hell, he creates gaps between himself and his congregation.

Even though I have never been a Christian, I still felt the play spoke to me, because ultimately, it’s a play about human nature, not strictly Christianity. One of the stand-out lines was “Does absolute tolerance mean being intolerant of the intolerant?” In the context of the play, that meant whether the pastor’s ideas of accepting that everyone goes to heaven means casting out the members of the church who invoke hellfire in their preaching, but it’s a valid question in many other contexts.

Another issue in the story is that it is strongly implied that the pastor had stopped believing in hell long before he came out with this sermon, but did not dare preach about it until the debt was paid off. This leaves some members of the congregation feeling like they were manipulated in order to secure their tithes. This gets to the issue of having a religious organization which requires a lot of money – it creates economic incentives for people to preach ideas they don’t believe. Though the pastor in the play is not an atheist (he believes in God even though he does not believe in hell), it reminds me of some of the people that The Clergy Project reaches out to – religious leaders who have stopped believing in their religion yet keep on working because they need the paycheck (or they fear backlash from the congregation, etc.)

The play also makes clear that treating the members of the congregation who continue to believe in hell as ignorant or hateful people will not cause them to drop their belief in hell – quite the opposite, in fact.

After the play, I was talking with a young couple about it. For them, the play resonated with them because it showed how a change in beliefs could break personal relationships, and one of them said that he avoids discussing what he feels about religion with his parents because he is afraid that would cause damage to his relationship with them.

It is a thought-provoking play which I think is worthwhile for both Christian and non-Christian audiences. If given an opportunity, I recommend seeing it.

CAUTION! FALLING ICE! – My Stay in Chicago

Okay, I could not resist using this movie poster. I can hardly believe that this is a 2002 film - I remember when it had its first run in theaters and was really popular.

Okay, I could not resist using this movie poster. I can hardly believe that this film dates as far back as 2002 – I remember when it had its first run in theaters and was really popular.

Before I went to Chicago, EVERYONE was warning me about how cold it would be. Even when I boarded the train in St. Louis, the conductor said “It’s cold in Chicago. We should be going south, not north.” I kept getting told that ~nothing~ I have experienced would prepare me for Chicago’s coldness. And windiness. And snowiness.

The train crossed into Illinois pretty much as soon as it got out St. Louis city limits. The train made stop after stop in various Illinois towns. As a native of Chicago I eventually met in Chicago said (with her distinctly Chicago accent) “Outside of Chicago, Illinois is a rural state. I remember, when I was going to Springfield, there was a thirty mile stretch when I lost phone reception, and I thought ‘Whoa, we’re still in Illinois, we’re not far from Chicago.'” She also said in the same conversation “The people downstate say we are moochers, but Cook County [where Chicago is located] provides 70% of the tax revenue for the state of Illinois. We’re not moochers.”

Indeed, the only place the train passed through which was not rural was Springfield, the capital of Illinois. I enjoyed seeing the small Illinois towns, and watching the people all bundled up boarding the train. And a lot of people boarded the train – it was an ‘overfull’ train since there were more passengers than seats. Most of those passengers did not board in St. Louis – there were entire cars which were empty when we departed St. Louis – which shows that a lot of people in small-town Illinois use the train to get to Chicago.

When I was in Missouri, I didn’t see any snow. However, only about 40 minutes into Illinois, I started seeing frost, and about twenty minutes later, I saw landscapes coated with snow. There were a lot of fields, but there was also quite a bit of forest.

Meanwhile, I was uncomfortable, because the train was overheated – way more heated that any other Amtrak train I have ever taken.

Anyway, as we were getting to Chicago, I was bracing myself for the test – was I ready for Chicago winter weather?

Answer: the streets of Chicago – on a night which even local Chicago people said was particularly cold – were more comfortable than that overheated train.

I am happy to report that Chicago (at least near the train station) has better street lighting than New Orleans. It was pretty exciting, not just walking through a city I had never been to before, but walking through an environment I had never been in before. I have experienced snow in Kyoto, but Kyoto snow is much less intense than Chicago snow. The sidewalks of Chicago, even when they are cleared of snow, retain a thin layer of salt crystals which give them a frosty appearance.useful).

That said, I must thank everyone who gave me dire warnings of Chicago winter weather. They persuaded me to bring clothing which made my time in Chicago more comfortable than it would have been otherwise (long underwear is very

I slept in a hostel in Greektown, which is on the eastern edge of the ‘Near West Side’ and has a lot of Greek eateries. I suspect that the managers/owners of the hostel are also Greek-Americans.

The next day – which was the only full day I spent in Chicago – I spent hours walking around in downtown. I loved the look of snow blanketing the urban landscape. I noticed an abundance of signs saying ‘Caution – Falling Ice’ – hence the title of this post. Though I never rode the El, I enjoyed looking up at the tracks and hearing the trains above me.

Chicago is famous for its architecture, and yes, a lot of it is nice. However, the Sears Tower (I know it has another name now, but I still think of it as the ‘Sears Tower’) does not look like anything special at ground level – it just looks like a generic skyscraper.

The highlight of the walk was not the buildings, but Lake Michigan. It was the first time I had seen any of the Great Lakes. I liked its blue/turquoise/cyan color against the white/gray sky. I saw a great variety of ice floating on the lake waters. In some places the ice was really choppy and broken up, full of white edges, as the lake water undulated beneath it. In another place, the ice formed large sheets which were nearly translucent, making them the same color as the water, but one could see cracks in the plates of ice, like cracks in a glass window. I was impressed by a pair of ducks which were happily splashing in the lake water right next to one of the ice sheets. And the beaches – I have never seen a beach blanketed with snow before. I love the interested blobs of frozen sand which looked like cool complicated rocks – and felt as hard as rock.

In the afternoon, it began to snow anew. I felt that walking through Chicago was like walking through a Christmas card, and experience I’ve never had before. I grew up in coastal California, where it simply does not snow – in California, winter means the landscape because green with sprouting and reviving plants and new life (in other words, winter is to us what spring is to East Coast culture). As a child, the only times I ever saw snow was when my family visited the Sierra mountains – in summer. I saw snow fall from the sky for the first time in Kyoto, and that is the only other urban environment to date where I have seen snow, but, well, Kyoto does not look like a Christmas card.

I loved the weather in Chicago. I felt it was a challenge and an adventure, and the scenery was gorgeous. However, most residents of Chicago had a reaction like this when they heard I was going to San Francisco next –

Me: Next, I’m going to San Francisco.
Chicago Resident: I want to go to San Francisco.
Me: It doesn’t snow in San Francisco.
Chicago Resident: I know, that’s why I want to go there!

Some residents of Chicago seemed a bit … disappointed that I was not put off by the weather. However, they explained that, while the weather had novelty value for me because it was all new to me, dealing with the snow and the wind and the cold gets old when one has to put up with it all winter, year after year. I can understand that perspective.

In the evening, I … went to the theatre. There was no way I was going to stay in Chicago without seeing a theatre show (well, maybe if I were in Chicago on a Monday night I would skip the theatre). I saw The Christians performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I had seen a Steppenwolf production more than ten years ago when they toured in San Francisco, but this was obviously the first time I saw a show in their home theatre. I will post a review later, but in summary, it was excellent.

I was talking to one of the employees at Steppenwolf, and I learned that she is from Jackson, Mississippi. That’s near Vicksburg, so I told her that I had recently visited Vicksburg. I then learned that both of her parents were from Vicksburg. It’s a small world.

I was seated next to a long-term Steppenwolf subscriber, and I enjoyed talking with her before the show began.

After hearing about my travels, the Steppenwolf employees decided to give me a Steppenwolf notebook, a Steppenwolf pen, and a complementary drink at their bar after the show. I was amazed by their generosity. I enjoyed a cocktail at their bar, and was impressed without how many people went to the bar right after the show. I guess it is a Chicago tradition, or maybe just a Steppenwolf one. I really liked the cocktail, which had vodka and ginger and spices and some other things (I guess it was a variation of a Moscow Mule).

On my last morning in Chicago, I went to Hull House. That happened to be the one day of the week that it is closed, but that was okay, since I was content to just look at the building and peek through the windows. Hull House, of course, was the base for the historically important social activist Jane Addams.

In summary, I loved Chicago and its winter weather. This was the right time for me to visit.