Adventure, Day 1

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Monday, October 25, 2021

This morning, a good friend dropped me at Portland’s Union Station (and then, of course, had to double back because I ALREADY forgot something…), where I had the delight of sitting on a wooden bench with no obligations except to stare at the signs, the ceiling, the passengers starting to queue up, the brightening sky. Waiting two hours for a train isn’t the average person’s idea of a good time, but for me it was sheer bliss. The anticipation of travel, the complete absence of “things I should be doing,” and the fascination of liminal spaces all add up to one of my favorite ways to pass a morning.

The train was delayed by about 40 minutes. I lagged behind the other business class passengers in getting out to the platform, but was relieved to claim the last window seat. We got moving pretty quickly and I watched Portland unfurl: graffiti-ed overpasses, industrial parks, gutted cars, vans waiting to load or unload, shipyards, marshy land. We came up along the Willamette and swung east to cross the Burlington Railway Bridge, under which I’ve paddled many times in my kayak. Then another stretch of land, and houseboats on inlets, and we were crossing the Columbia River.

By this point I was hungry enough to get in line for some food. The choices were sparse, so I indulged in a second cup of tea and a bagel and cream cheese. Unlike many of my fellow passengers, I did not go straight for the booze; my friends, I’m all in favor of day drinking, full approval from me, but I was still taken aback at the number of people ordering Jack Daniels or vodka at 9am. Apparently railway cars and airport lounges demolish all sense of “is it too early for a glass of liquor.”

The guy behind me was playing Gin Rummy with his seatmate, interrupted by a lengthy phone call with a work colleague. Unabashed eavesdropping is one of the many pleasures of travel, and the chatter behind me alternated between an interesting study in language (some people speak in a string of cliches; are cliches cheaper to access because they encode meaning in an easily indexed unit?) and a pleasant white noise.

There’s not a whole lot to relate about the landscape between Portland and Seattle. It’s endlessly fascinating to me but doesn’t make for good storytelling: “there were a lot of trees, and then a river between some trees, and then some trash beneath some trees, and then a road beside some trees, and then more trees.” Not great storytelling, but the perfect backdrop for reflecting on life. The last couple of months have been a lot of life and not as much reflecting as I’d like, so I relished the opportunity.

I had an interesting moment when I went to use the bathroom and the door, which I had obviously failed to lock properly, slid open while I was sitting there doing my business. I shared a split second of perplexity with the woman sitting in the seat facing the restroom before I shoved the door closed again and held it firmly in place. A fusty old part of me raised the alarm that I should be horrifically embarrassed by this event. But the rest of me kind of didn’t care, and I just washed my hands and staggered back to my seat to resume my blissful contemplation of Washington state.

We finally arrived at King Station around 12:30. I decided to walk to my hotel instead of taking public transit. I figured I’m going to have a hard time keeping to my training schedule this week, so I may as well take opportunities when they arise. I had forgotten, however, that King Street Station is at an elevation of about 30 feet, whereas the hotel is at an elevation of 1500 feet. (Okay, so it’s 305 feet according to Google maps. But it FELT like 1500 feet.) So there I was, climbing some astonishingly steep hills with a backpack duffel, carry-on bag, and rolling duffel in tow, walking straight into gale-force winds. Downside: all the sweat. Upside: endorphins and a sense of accomplishment. “Hike with weighted pack”: check.

The hotel proved worth the effort. Hotel Sorrento is an old building with the requisite charm, and I got upgraded to a king suite. Best amenity? An electric kettle! It might be a European pretension, but I’ll take what I can get.

I had good intentions of getting lunch in Chinatown, but the late train conspired with a 30-minute work call (which turned into over an hour, plus follow-up, plus more follow-up) to deprive me of lunch entirely. I’ve gotten better about setting work aside, but sometimes a thing needs to get done. So when I finally wrapped up tasks enough that I knew I’d be able to put work out of my mind for the rest of the week, I left my hotel and found a little Italian place several blocks away. Vito’s: a dim restaurant that could have been plucked from a New Jersey suburb. Piano in the corner, red velvet ceiling tiles (I kid you not), and a skilled young bartender who served up an exquisite Manhattan. Dinner itself was short ribs with gnocchetti and mushrooms. Too much food, despite the skipped lunch, but I regret nothing. It was divine. I felt like a proper old person having my drink and dinner before 5pm.

Speaking of being a proper old person, now I have that lovely vacation thought: is 6:15 too early to go to bed? (I suppose that’s the inverse of “is 9am too early for a cup of Jack?”) It is in fact too early, even for me, but the option is a delight nonetheless. I used to dislike hotels for their lack of hominess, but I’ve come to appreciate that very simplicity. I have no triggers here; no ragged curtains that I really ought to hem, no clutter, no embedded routines. No stack of books, no dishes to wash. I love all those things, of course — the signifiers of an invested life — but getting a break from them is also nice.

So instead of going to bed obscenely early, I’m writing this missive and then signing off to read and wind down. Tomorrow I have a day of glorious freedom in Seattle and then Wednesday — to Iceland!