Wednesday, May 13
Unless you’re flying Alaskan Airlines, the beer selection is awful on planes. Which is a shame, since a decent pint would go a fair way toward making the experience of spending hours wedged next to total strangers, in a narrow seat with inadequate legroom, and very limited access to basic comforts like the lavatory, more pleasant. Several pints would be even better, but for that aforementioned problem of actually getting to use the lavatory.
So. No beer on the three flights it took us to reach Portland from Buffalo. In the Boston airport we stopped into Stephanie’s, a classy little sports bar with a decent looking menu, though of course the prices were a bit inflated for trapped airline customers. I wasn’t about to spend $10 for a bottle of something I can get in a six pack for the same amount, and I kind of figured, When in Boston…so I ordered a Guinness. Only, they’d run out. So I ‘settled’ for a classic West Coast IPA from Lagunitas. Now that’s the way to spend a short layover.
The only “craft” beer to be found at O’Hare was Goose Island. Previously, I would have been pleased to check out Chicago’s (seemingly) best-loved brewery, but that was before they sold out to The Man. Still, wayfarers can’t be choosers. And they do make a reasonable, if not particularly memorable, IPA. By West Coast standards, it’s nothing to write home about, but it beats the hell out of all that macro blue this-or-that swill, and gives Sam Adams a run for its money, thanks to that brewery’s preoccupation with lager.
Thursday, May 14
1:30 am is rarely a pleasant time to be awake, much less working, but the hotel shuttle driver who picked us up from the airport was cheerful and polite, as was the front desk clerk who checked us in at the hotel. Given that we were in Portland, these details are hardly worth a mention, except that we’ve spent the past few years in the Northeast, where people are considered nice if they render decent service without spitting in your coffee or trying to kill you. The most outgoing souls might actually smile, and refrain from barking their reply when asked a question. So much for East Coast civility.*
Like most cities, Portland always has something going on in terms of construction, road works, and generally hampering citizens’ movements with improvement projects. Our attempt to reach Union Station in the early afternoon put me in mind of Dane Cook’s cheating sequence from “Vicious Circle,” about explaining his lateness to his sleepy girlfriend; “they changed all the roads…I had to help them fix the fucking roads” (2006).
5th street runs right by the station, going the wrong way. Normally, in a city laid out like a grid, four turns in the same direction will put you back in roughly the same spot. Not there. They didn’t even alternate one-way streets; it’s all left-turn-only for several blocks. At least half an hour after first approaching it, Ben’s sister was able to drop us off at the Amtrak station downtown, making me wish municipal planners wouldn’t take the city’s unofficial motto, “Keep Portland Weird,” quite so seriously.
No time to visit any of the brewpubs located within a 10 or 20 block radius of Union Station, but Wilfs Restaurant next door offered a comfortable seat, quiet atmosphere, and a couple brews on tap from PINTS, an Old Town brewery that converts itself into a coffee shop during the morning hours. In a region that takes its coffee as seriously as its beer, that’s brilliant business.
We both ordered the Seismic IPA—when in doubt, get an IPA or a stout—and I settled down to soak in the atmosphere. With its unassuming exterior, wing backed red velvet chairs, gilt mirrors, restrained lighting, and decently well-stocked bar, Wilfs had an almost speakeasy feel; the kind of place where “legitimate businessmen” of the Prohibition era might have stopped in for a quiet lunch and a tipple. Given that it was directly next to the train station, it was a good a place as any, and a good deal better than most, for a quick break before departure.
Seismic IPA tasting notes:
(Ben) Continental pale malt and CaraMunich flavors. Tastes like Chinook and Pearl, maybe something else. Dry hops? Wood and citrus. Orange and other citrus notes.
(Meagan) According to their beer list, these guys use Columbus, Amarillo, Cascade and Simcoe for this tasty example of a Pac Northwest IPA. Established in 2012, they’re relatively new to the area, and completely new to me. Looking at their beer list, which includes such tantalizing-sounding selections as an Eisbock and a Rauchweizen, I’ve decided that we must go there and do a proper article on them sometime. A brewery that also serves locally roasted coffee? Yes, please!
Last call for lunch in the dining car sounded just after our train, the number 11 Coast Starlight, pulled out of the station. This afforded us the rare (for me, as I don’t often travel by rail) experience of sitting down to a meal with total strangers.
The drinks selection on trains is not much better than airplanes, with the exception of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Charging around $6 per bottle is railway robbery for a beer that, while good, is almost as common as water in those parts, but we both ordered one to accompany our lunch, and lubricate the conversation with our table mates. The couple had booked a cabin for their trip home to San Francisco, which accommodations they found wanting in comparison with those offered on German trains. Their disappointment with the cabin notwithstanding, they retired to it after what was, for me at least, a pleasant chat, and I didn’t see them again for the remainder of the journey to Klamath Falls.
Amtrak has its downsides, to be sure. Before boarding our final flight the night before, and while eating breakfast at our hotel that morning, we’d seen coverage of a derailment in Philadelphia. Surprisingly few people were killed, considering that the train was reportedly barreling along at 106 mph†. The incident was a natural topic of discussion for folks travelling by rail, and later, for their friends and family. Though nearly everyone seemed to have a story about Amtrak delays, the trip from Portland to K-Falls was on-schedule, and mostly pleasant.
Planes will get you there much faster, and cars give you more control over the journey, but there’s something very cool about being able to sit down (without seatbelts) and watch the scenery out of the enormous observation car windows. The options to walk about, stretch your legs a bit, and use the head (almost) whenever you want are a definite advantage of train travel, and even the assigned seats are roomier and more conducive the relaxation or dozing than in airlines. That Amtrak uses antiquated technology is nearly indisputable, but if speed were not a factor, I’d probably choose train over air travel every time. And this from a girl who loves airplanes, and delights in the rush of take-offs and landings.
Some time ago, I read a couple of articles on the possibility of Amtrak offering writers’ residencies, and was curious as to whether trains made for a good writing environment. Sadly, I was too jet-lagged, and worried about the reason for our hasty trip west—a family emergency—to accomplish much writing, though I did manage a little. Mostly, I stared out the window and indulged in feelings of intense homesickness.
*For every rule, there is at least one exception. I am acquainted with many decent people from NY and similar places, and the waitress who served us an admittedly late night dinner on our last night in Portland was uncommonly brusque for that area.
† G. Stolberg, Cheryl, Jad Mouawad, and Emma G. Fitzsimmons. “Amtrak Train Derailed Going 106 M.P.H. on Sharp Curve; at Least 7 Killed.” The New York Times 12 May 2015, Online ed. The New York Times Company. Web. 21 May 2015.