Mon, Jul

Sacramento Dreaming


The kids are with Erin and their grandparents, camping among the sequoias in Kings Canyon east of Fresno. I’m not.

A few weeks ago, when we were planning this California vacation, Erin broached the idea of going out to the Sequoia National Park with Wendell and Judy and the kids camping overnight. She immediately said, “You don’t have to.”

Immediately, mind. She didn’t wait for me to protest, or see the look of horror spread across my face. She assumed, even before she broached the subject, that I would hate camping and be miserable.

Truth to tell, while she is right that camping is not the first thing I would think of when it comes to doing things while on vacation (where are the hotel beds?), I don’t think I would have hated it… Disliked it, maybe. Been a trooper about it…

But excusing me from camping did give me an opportunity to do something that Erin and the kids… well, probably would not have hated, but would certainly have had a lot less fun with than me had they tagged along: take Amtrak to Sacramento and ride its LRT.

Actually, just as I suspect I may have had more fun camping than the people in my family suspect, Erin and the kids might have been pleasantly surprised by Sacramento. Though, to be fair, I haven’t ridden the LRT yet.

Sacramento is also the home of the California State Railroad Museum. Sacramento has a long history with the railways, as it was part of the famous Central Pacific, which paired with the Union Pacific to build America’s first transcontinental railroad. A portion of the Central Pacific’s track and its local depot have been preserved. While excursion trains weren’t running today (weekends only; oh, well), the two-storey tall exhibition building is open seven days a week, and features a lot preserved equipment telling the story of how Pacific railroad built the American nation.

Railroads seem to do that a lot. Canada’s story is tied up with its railroad, and while America isn’t as focused on their own, it’s still a powerful tale, inextricably linked with Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the settlement of the West (though the impact on the First Nations is somewhat downplayed).

It was interesting just walking among the equipment, and hearing experts talk about such things as how the Railway Post Office worked, or how certain exhibits came to be at the museum. For the kids, there was an extensive toy train exhibit. For those who love toy antiques, Lionel Trains were prominently displayed. There was a gallery of salvaged equipment art, and a nice display showing kids how electricity worked, which allowed kids to make circuits without electrocuting themselves.

Better yet, the California State Railway Museum is in the heart of Old Sacramento, a section of the city along the riverfront that features buildings dating from at least the 1850s. The sidewalks are wooden planks. There are a lot of restaurants and souvenir shops (including one that sold Doctor Who memorabilia). The whole thing was cut off from downtown Sacramento by the Interstate, and I get the distinct impression that certain civic leaders of Sacramento had to work very hard to preserve even what was there. The Interstate is still an incredible barrier to the Riverfront (you think Toronto’s got problems with the Gardiner? You ain’t seen Sacramento), but at least they’ve tried to turn the walkways beneath the elevated highways into intriguing gateways. It truly does feel like a portal to another time.

I’m staying at the Holiday Inn in Downtown Sacramento, and it’s an interesting place. Amtrak plunks us right downtown, and I straight down 4th Street just a couple of blocks to get to the hotel. Fourth Street was blocked off and made into a pedestrian mall, like Sparks Street in Ottawa. Along the way, I walked through a block that appeared to be Sacramento’s Chinatown Mall. The skyscrapers had oriental ornamentation. It was interesting, but not well populated.

Fourth Street also linked with the public walkway to Old Sacramento, and that saw a lot more foot traffic. However, at the downtown end of said public walkway was a downtown mall. It’s not doing so good. Though there is a Starbucks, a movie theatre, and an active Macy’s, just about everything else is shut down. I had a devil of a time finding a restaurant somewhere other than my hotel. Beyond the mall, office towers predominate, and I get the distinct impression that the sidewalks roll up after 5 p.m. — or later but only if the Sacramento Kings are playing.

It’s interesting seeing this town that has some real gems in its urban makeup, but is clearly still struggling. I wonder what else I’ll see as I explore on the LRT.

Pictures of my day can be found here



My American friends — and Canadians who came of political age after 1993 — may not truly appreciate this gem, but it’s clear that Newfoundlander conservative John Crosbie hasn’t lost the fire that made him a force in federal politics, even as it got him into trouble more than once.

John Crosbie’s son, Ches, was running for the Conservative nomination for the Newfoundland riding of Avalon. Inexplicably, though he was the only candidate (and the deadline for candidacy in the upcoming election was June 25), Conservative party brass saw fit to deny his papers.

Ches announced this by way of a press release, but he did not seem really interested in engaging the press. His father, on the other hand…

Ches Crosbie is a prominent St. John’s lawyer and was the only person vying for the Conservative nomination in Avalon. On Wednesday, Ches issued a press release saying that “decision-makers at party headquarters in Ottawa decided I wasn’t the type of candidate they wanted.”

Ches Crosbie was not available for comment but his father…

Oh, here we go…

“The audacity of some small, unknown committee of people up in Ottawa that could have this power…is not only insulting, it’s a disgrace…I can’t explain my scorn and disdain. I am am really browned off!”

“If it wasn’t for my age, I’m 84, I’d bloody-well put my hat in the ring in the next couple of weeks. I’d run myself…I’m tempted to do that.”

“They don’t care about helping the party. They want to help themselves be influential in all Newfoundland affairs so they can dictate to us down here in Newfoundland what the federal attitude is.”

“I can’t understand why the leader of the party would let these flunkies from his office or somebody’s staff dealing with Newfoundland affairs…why they would be allowed to cause the trouble that they’re causing.”

“To be insulted like this, it’s just intolerable.”

“I’m very disappointed in the party and how they’re behaving. They’re going to have a hell of a hard job to win the next election, that’s for sure.”

If you’re like me, you’re picturing the reporter just holding up a microphone silently, hair and clothes being blown back in the wind.

Thu, Jul

Fresno Dreaming

Nope. That doesn’t scan. Not at all…


I’m calling the picture above “Bay Window”. That’s because it’s the San Francisco bay outside the train’s window. Ha!

On our last day in San Francisco, our tugboat hosts took us to see the Bay Model. This impressive achievement by the Army Corp of Engineers is a scale model of the Bay Area, built to model the flow of the tides through the Golden Gate. It was forced upon the Corp by Congress who wouldn’t allow a plan to damn parts of the Bay to provide fresh water lakes (or, so the Corps thought), without the Corps finding out what would really happen in miniature.

Turns out, damming the bay would make the trapped water saltier, not fresher. It would have silted things up something fierce. On the basis of the model alone, the Army Corps of Engineers thankfully realized that their plan was Not A Good Idea™, and so they backed off the proposal.

This was in the 1950s, before we had computers, but the model still functions extremely well. It was recently used by the Mythbusters crew to highlight that escapees from Alcatraz would have had a hard time to get to Angel Island, as the FBI suggested they went, since they would have to contend with the bay’s fierce tidal currents. The more likely destination, in fact, was the Marin Headlands, and the model gave the Mythbusters crew enough confidence to make the trip themselves.

The model is impressive. It’s about two football fields big, and it’s impressively detailed, right down to the salinity of the water. It highlights just how big the Bay Area is, stretching all the way back to Sacramento. It’s currently serving to highlight the intricate ecosystem of the bay, and humanity’s complicated relationship with it. Like all US federal museums, admission is free (thanks, Uncle Sam!), and it was open from 9 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

After a quick lunch, our hosts took us to Richmond, where we boarded Amtrak’s San Joaquin for the run to Fresno. Amtrak’s fare was extremely reasonable — $90 for a family of four for the three-and-a-half hour trip. We pulled out through the Bay, and having seen the Bay Model, I appreciated better just how big that thing is.

Wendell and Judy were at Fresno station to meet us, and they took us home for the (hopefully) much more relaxing part of our vacation. There’s been a pool visit, and there will be a waterpark, visits with cousins, and a camping trip among the sequoias. It’s dry here, and it’s the hottest we’ve been in at least a year (106’F temperatures greeted us in Fresno, a shock from San Francisco’s 68’F), but we had a thunderstorm last night — an event so shocking, it led off the local news.

Here’s some pictures from the trip


Soon after we arrived in San Francisco, we discovered that we had arrived in the city in time for Pride. Indeed, we learned that the Pride Parade was going to be steps away from the hotel. Erin resolved immediately that the kids and I should attend (she couldn’t, sadly, because she had to work that morning).

We figured it was an important thing to do. Being in San Francisco for Pride would be high up in many a person’s bucket list, but it was especially important to bring the kids there because it would have been unthinkable for us to be there ourselves when we were kids.

I have to admit that I was a little less enthused, but I did believe the kids could use the instruction on the importance of marching and being politically active. And once there, we had a good time. The vibe was just so joyous, especially in the wake of the successful Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage legal across the United States. We’d intended to stick around for twenty minutes, but we stayed for an hour. A good chunk of that time was watching the Apple contingent clear the intersection (seriously, there were literally thousands of employees waving the flag. That company is huge). Vivian termed the parade “cool”!

Later that day, I learned that the Turkish government had attacked peaceful Pride marchers in Istanbul with riot police, tear gas and rubber projectiles. I know a Canadian Facebook friend who has a daughter caught in the thick of things. If nothing else illustrates the need for the Pride March, I don’t know what does.

I’m writing about this in more detail in my next column of The Kitchener Post.

Erin’s book promotion work ended Sunday at noon, and we celebrated by… collapsing in the hotel and falling asleep. But we did head out around supper time, too, dinner at Super Duper Burger (which had a lovely four-ounce “mini” burger that was just the right size and price for us), and caught a cab for the Golden Gate park, and the famous children’s playground, there.

The playground lived up to expectations, but we discovered that the Golden Gate park was 50 city blocks long. The idea of walking it to catch the sunset at Ocean Beach seemed somewhat… ambitious. But the playground was enough fun for the evening.

We also ended up making friends with the cab driver who took us from the hotel to the park (navigating some hefty diversions as a fair chunk of Market Street was still closed off to traffic, but the architecture we got to see en route was wonderful). When she set us down at an intersection that seemed somewhat lacking in traffic, we wondered aloud how we were going to hail a cab for the ride back, so she gave us her phone number and arranged a time to pick us up, which she did. When we wondered about how to get to Sausalito, where we were going to stay overnight on Monday, she quoted us a reasonable price, and sweetened the deal by promising to take us across the Golden Gate Bridge. We managed to stop for pictures. She also managed to take us on a brief tour of the Presidio.

Tonight, it’s a party and sleep on a tugboat. Tomorrow, we board Amtrak for the run to Fresno.

For more pictures of these two days of our trip, click here


Sat, Jun

California Dreaming

On the Way to California

Erin headed out to the west coast on a week-long tour to promote The Scorpion Rules. She visited booksellers in Seattle and Los Angeles before coming to the American Librarian’s Association in San Francisco. The kids had their last week of school and then, on Friday, we departed Waterloo Regional airport for a two-flight jaunt (via Chicago O’Hare) to San Francisco.

I had thought that going via the regional airport would make for an easier trip. And while it was far easier to drive just a half-hour to the area’s airport and board the plane on the tarmac, the flaw in that plan was that, in Chicago, we were obliged to clear through US immigration, customs, and then to change terminals and go through security a second time.

We had an hour and twenty minute connection scheduled for us by American Airlines. We arrived in Chicago about ten minutes late.

I have to say that I am impressed at how quickly US immigration clears people through, but that’s still a lot of people to clear through. Shifting us through security a second time was more than annoying, especially as my computer seemed to trip something that required me to be pulled aside and patted down (though I hasten to add that the TSA personnel were wholly professional and almost apologetic as the minutes ticked down on our connection.

It all culminated in the kids and I charging down the concourse looking for gate H-16 (which, if you know O’Hare, tells you how long of a walk we still had). Vivian was on the verge of a meltdown, Nora was exhausted, and I was ready to use both kids in tears to extract whatever concession I could from whatever American Airlines personnel I had to talk to when scheduling the replacement flight.

We arrived at the gate one minute after the scheduled departure time. Miracle of miracles, though, our departure to San Francisco had been delayed by twenty-five minutes. We basically collapsed with relief, then boarded the plane for the last leg of the trip. We arrived in San Francisco at sunset, even though our internal clocks told us it was 11 p.m. We took BART to the hotel and collapsed into bed, though the kids resolved (and succeeded) in staying up until their mom came home from a late engagement.

Jet lag being what it was, the kids woke up at six in the morning. iPods to the rescue! But we had breakfast at a lovely restaurant called Stacks in one of the less touristy areas of San Francisco, then the kids and I took the F-Market line to the Exploratorium while Erin did more work at the conference.

Sunday is Erin’s last working day, and she’s only occupied for the morning. The afternoon promises some Pride Parade watching, since we appear to have landed in the middle of Pride Week, and the parade is due to go right outside our hotel. And, of course, the community is in the mood to celebrate after the historic SCOTUS decision this week. Should be a lot of fun. We’ll be in the city on Monday as well before heading out to a party of writer friends on a converted tugboat where we’ll be spending the night. Then it’s off to Fresno.

So, all told, we’re glad to be here. Still, American Airlines might want to see what they can do about their hour and twenty-minute connection from Kitchener. If they can’t cut down the need to go through security a second time, they should at least lengthen the length of time between flights because that’s a lot of stress to place on the shoulder of travellers with kids.

Click here to see photos of the first two days of our California vacation.


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