- 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
- 02. A Public Service
- 03. The 22% Solution
- 04. On The Campaign Trail
- 05. Athens of America
- 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
- 07. My Canadian Family
- 08. Edmonton? Why?
- 09. Prairie Singers
- 10. Deconstructing Calgary
- 11. My Kelowna
- 12. Wine Whine
- 13. Fire Mountain
- 14. A Stopover and a Popover
- 15. Inspiring Victoria
- 16. Planet Rosehip
- 17. Carry On Grunge
- 18. Street People
- 19. The Curse of Portland
- 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
- 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
- 22. Managing Yosemite
- 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
- 24. Parched
- 25. Brave New San Fran
- 26. Over The Hill
- 27. Greatest Again
The campaign trail headed north from Boston aboard Amtrak’s Downeaster, bound for Portland Maine. I like train travel, even on Amtrak. An Amtrak cabin attendant once told me that American rail employees refer to train buffs as “foamers”, as in foaming at the mouth. Australians are a bit more subtle about it, inventing, as they do, their own word for train fans, “gunzels”. This is as one might expect: where Australians enthuse, Americans fanaticise.
Would be that there were a few more Americans fanatical about Amtrak.
Amtrak owns a few short corridors between major cities, most notably that between Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, but also between Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as Chicago and a host of nearby tertiary cities nobody has ever heard of (Racine, for example). On those corridors Amtrak runs the show, giving their own trains priority. As a result they deliver reasonable on-time performance, and – save one recent and yet-to-be-explained anomaly near Philadelphia where a train flew off the rails going twice the speed limit killing a bunch of understandably astonished passengers – an excellent safety record.
Outside those corridors is another story altogether. Amtrak is subject to the whims of the track owners, freight railroads that for obvious economic reasons would sooner see their cargo move along than see a train load of passengers get somewhere on time. Many of the those trains have been informally re-named to reflect the reality of this situation: the Lake Shore Limited is commonly referred to as the Late-For-Sure Limited; the Coast Starlight is, predictably, the Comes So Late.
It did not surprised me, then, to receive an email from Amtrak ten days in advance saying our train would be an hour late arriving in Portland. Neither was I surprised that we’d be late due to track work over which Amtrak had no control. Nor that we’d be arriving in a bus, not a train. It didn’t even surprise me the same email said the track work would be completed a week earlier. What surprised me was they sent an email at 2:43 that I didn’t receive until 10:15. Even Amtrak’s emails run late!
We boarded the Downlater, excuse me, the Downeaster at noon, already a half hour behind schedule. The ride took us out of Boston’s North Station, not the direct route up the beautiful shoreline towards Maine (for the pretty good reason that there aren’t any train tracks there) but through interior heartland of Massachusetts’ post-industrial apocalypse, at once sad and scenic, green and grimy, Billerica and Haverhill. Eventually we crossed into New Hampshire.
It is nearly impossible to get to Maine from Massachusetts by land without experiencing some degree of New Hampshire, and I have tried. Many people, I daresay most, have glowing things to say about New Hampshire’s loveliness. If you have been the recipient of such perspectives in the past, rest assured you may find my views most refreshing.
New Hampshire is not one of my favourite states; a parasite on civilized society. Its legislature is the largest in the US despite representing a tiny population; it seems about one resident in three is a representative. The result is recalcitrant law, such as the one that makes selling fireworks legal, even though it is illegal to possess fireworks in every bordering jurisdiction. In New Hampshire, they are proud there is no sales tax and no state income tax. It doesn’t bother them that the state coffers – and therefore their schools, hospitals, and public safety — are largely dependent on revenues from the sale of alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and explosives. The government is, very literally, in the business of making sure the people continue to smoke, drink, gamble and detonate en masse.
New Hampshire is a state where prisoners are made to stamp out licence plates bearing the suggestive state motto, “Live Free or Die”. It is a place where the monopoly State-run liquor stores are located in places that require a car to reach, ensuring the continued nexus of drinking and driving. Not surprisingly, sane people stop in New Hampshire only long enough to pay the tolls required to pass.
Presidential candidates are not sane people. In the past they would descend on New Hampshire every four years for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Now that presidential elections are continuous rolling events, there are always more than a few candidates in New Hampshire “testing the waters”. There is no reasonable explanation for New Hampshire’s disproportionate role in presidential politics, except perhaps the reality that its leaders would sooner see the entire country go down in flames than see New Hampshire lose that position, a patriotism most convoluted.
You may have correctly surmised that I don’t see getting a lot of votes from New Hampshire. Nevertheless, I made a quick whistlestop speech from the train platform to a raucous crowd at Exeter (“Get off the goddam tracks, we’re already an hour late!”), whereupon we made hast for the Maine border.
At Wells, Maine – a lovely town, by the way – Amtrak herded all passengers aboard a bus for the last leg to Portland. I couldn’t even call it a “coach”, it was closer to a school bus. To be fair, we would have been on it for only forty-five minutes if it hadn’t burst into flames after five minutes on the Maine Turnpike. Well, “burst into flames” may be overstating it a bit, but something suddenly caused great billows of black smoke to stream worryingly from the engine in the rear.
The Amtrak crew had taken the seats at the rear of the bus, so it was they who alerted the driver that every passing vehicle was full of alarmed-looking individuals waving and pointing at the back of the bus with gravitas. We stopped in the breakdown lane, the driver and crew opening the engine door to peer at its smokeliness. With the confidence as might be conveyed by a Monty Python sketch explanations involving bearings and alternators were mumbled, we passengers assured that all would be fine if the air conditioning was turned off and the speed kept down. Most unexpectedly, they were correct. We arrived in Portland only ninety minutes late.
My fourth campaign pledge: Under a Smiling Kodiak administration, Congresspersons will not be reimbursed for travel other than that on Amtrak. In addition to significant savings, there’s a reasonable chance Congress will never be able to form a quorum.
My brother was waiting patiently, if not happily, in Portland. He drove us north to Rangeley, about as deep in Yankee-country as one can get.
The word “Yankee” has different meanings to different people. To all but Americans, it is a general term for American. To most Americans, it is a term used to describe Northerners; that is, those north of the Mason-Dixon line. To Northerners, it is a term applied to those from the Northeast states, top right of Pennsylvania, inclusive. In the Northeast, it is used to describe those even more top-right, from the six New England states – which notably excludes New York, home of the baseball Yankees.
In New England itself, “Yankee” is used to describe the crusty, long-lived, paradoxical types who concentrate themselves north of Boston to the Canadian border, although they are also found from Cape Cod to Newfoundland. They are well-landed, if not well-heeled, with families going back centuries, something of a rarity in the New World. In Newburyport, a gentleman running for Mayor recognized this reality by pronouncing himself the underdog in the race as a “newcomer”. He had lived only 37 of his 42 years in Newburyport. It is in this sense that I refer to Yankees.
Yankees are known to speak plainly in cryptic fashion. The most well-known phrase in Yankee-speak is to respond to a request for directions with “You can’t get there from here” (properly pronounced “Ya cahn’t get they-ah from he-yah”). By that they mean you have to go somewhere else first, which is always true, but by the same token, you actually can get anywhere from where you are. It is no coincidence that about 15% of Yankees share the last name Noyes, spelled “no, yes” but appropriately enough pronounced “noise”. I think half the town council of Newbury had that name, and as we entered Rangeley I found it plastered on numerous real estate placards.
Rangeley, Maine is a small town in the lake-dotted mountains about 15 miles southeast of the point where the borders of New Hampshire, Quebec and Maine intersect. It’s a place subject to tourist influxes year-round, although the kind of tourist varies with the season’s attraction: fishing, climbing, skiing, hiking, hunting, swimming, and boating. The year-round community is less resentful than most such Yankee communities that are largely dependent on tourism.
We spent a couple days lounging about with my brothers, taking his pontoon boat out for a ride on Cupsuptic Lake, and generally eating and drinking more than one ought. It was the height of strawberry season, so we took in the Strawberry Festival in nearby Oquossoc. Classic Americana: undersized children stuffing themselves with oversized servings of strawberry shortcake swimming in whipped cream, grubby old men pawing the cheap but tasty hot dogs they grilled for public consumption (I enjoyed two), artisans selling their crafts to that curiously large swath of society that buys artisan crafts.
Best of all, there were tables of “rummage”, a word fashioned by combining “rubbish”, “garbage”, and “hmmm”. This collection had been emptied from some attic to be sold to benefit the local scout troop. Hundreds of VHS tapes. Every version of Norton Utilities from 2003 to 2009.
I browsed through the book collection, realising that the books were either conspiracy theorist manifestos, or dissertations on “The Jewish Problem” masquerading as scholarly works. Scary and disconcerting as these titles were, there were two wisps of good news in it. First, the lunatic who owned these books was almost certainly dead. Equally, though, it confirmed my suspicion that in the Yankee ranks there are many with a tenuous hold on reality – fertile ground for my campaign!
I stumped the hustings, spellbinding diverse constituencies with enigmatic rhetoric. I crossed back into New Hampshire, finding myself in Dixville Notch. Here, for decades every four years the few townsfolk would meet at midnight at the polling station, a resort hotel, to cast their votes, making their community the first to report election results in the nation’s first presidential primary. Not surprisingly, the vote of two dozen elderly white mountaineers bore no correlation whatsoever to the eventual results of the presidential election, or even the day’s primary, for that matter. Inexplicably, they got a lot of media nevertheless.
I was disturbed to find the resort, The Balsams, had been shuttered for some years. Apparently the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 had usurped the credit of the unfortunate investor that had purchased the venerable establishment, so he ran out of working capital. As a result, the Dixville Notch voting tradition had gone the way of the typewriter. Ribbonless.
Taken down a notch, we pressed on, into Vermont. There we found only verdant Bernie Sanders supporters, with their impenetrable expectations of critical thinking masked in protestations of compassion. Conserving our resources, we moved on again.
Into Canada. Where untold thousands of American expatriates fail to vote, file tax returns, respond to draft notices (at least in the past), oppose public restrooms, or support the continued use of pennies. These were my people, Smiling Kodiak People. Things were looking up.