Posts Tagged ‘photos’

Vaillancourt Fountain

June 9th, 2019

Vaillancourt Fountain
Vaillancourt Fountain Vaillancourt Fountain
 

Of all the controversial elements of San Francisco, Vaillancourt Fountain easily evokes the strongest love-it-or-hate-it response of any water feature. Sitting in the corner of Embarcadero Plaza (formerly Justin Herman Plaza) it looks like a large knot of rectangular pipes spewing water in various directions — when it’s on, that is.

Over the past couple decades the fountain hasn’t always been running, but was turned back on three years ago and has mostly been running since then.

Many critics today point out that the fountain fit the area better when it was in the shadow of the similarly Brutalist architecture of the Embarcadero Freeway. They have a point. Aside from the visual style, the fountain’s pump moves water at a blistering pace, creating a loud soundscape of splashing water that could easily down out the sound of the freeway that once stood behind it.

 
Vaillancourt Fountain
 

Unusually for a fountain there’s a walkway through it on a number of concrete slabs. This seems to be a major attraction for kids, but be warned it’s always slippery and you’ll likely get wet walking through it. Also note there’s no handrails so be careful down there.

It’s certainly worth taking a chance on the walkway if you’re up for it, the view from there is completely unique.

 
Vaillancourt Fountain
 

At some point in recent years the back of the fountain was fenced off. This is unfortunate; two staircases behind the fountain lead to overlook points facing toward the Embarcadero Center (and away from the former Embarcadero Freeway) which was a nice spot to take photos if nothing else. Perhaps there’s a safety concern, but then again these stairs and overlooks always seemed safer to me than walking through the fountain down below.

For some reason the fountain is operated by the city’s Recreation & Parks Department despite being located on private property — it’s part of the Embarcadero Center office/retail complex. This arrangement gives the fountain some protection against critics who want to see it demolished.

I will say this: critics of the fountain only seem to crop up when it’s not running. There’s a lesson here about public art. If it’s going to be successful in the long run it needs a maintenance budget. Pretty much everyone appreciates the idea of public art, but when it’s sitting there broken it’s not going to win over any new fans.

Pink Triangle Park and Memorial

June 4th, 2019

Pink Triangle Park and Memorial
Pink Triangle Park and Memorial Pink Triangle Park and Memorial
 

After delving into the potential futures of Harvey Milk Plaza yesterday, I thought I’d hop across the street and discuss one of the most overlooked public places in San Francisco hidden in plain sight.

Located on a small triangular piece of land between Market Street and 17th Street, Pink Triangle Park and Memorial — often simply referred to as Pink Triangle Park — commemorates the LGBT victims of the Nazi regime during WWII.

According to PinkTranglePark.org:

Being one of the earliest minority groups targeted, approximately 100,000 men were arrested during this time and as many as 15,000 were sentenced to work and death camps. Assumed feminine by nature, Homosexual men were tagged with Pink Triangles. Lesbians however, were not considered Homosexual but Asocial, they were given Black Triangles and forced into prostitution.

During the later part of the 20th century, the Pink Triangle transformed from a symbol of hatred to one of Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Queer pride.

From Market and Castro there isn’t really a designated safe way to approach the park as Streetsblog SF pointed out last year. Unfortunately whatever plans were in the works to address this issue were never completed. Your best bet is to carefully walk from the 17th Street side, but be warned that for whatever reason motorists absolutely floor it down this tiny residential street! Still, at least it’s a one way, one lane street at this intersection.

So as memorials go it’s not the most serene place by any measure, with cars whizzing by on two of the park’s three sides. Still, at least the shape of the place is appropriate. The space is maintained by volunteers; if you’d like to help out visit PinkTranglePark.org for more info.

“Save Harvey Milk Plaza” written in dust

June 3rd, 2019

Save Harvey Milk Plaza
 

Yesterday while walking through Church Station I noticed the renovations there were winding down, and behind the semi-demolished storage area someone had written SaveHarveyMilkPlaza.org in the dust on the orange railing.

This is a reaction to proposed changes at Castro Station, the next station outbound from Church. The plaza on the south side of the station was dedicated to Harvey Milk back in 1985, and hasn’t changed much since. Muni intends to make some changes to the plaza to address ADA compliance issues, which somehow ballooned into a complete overhaul of the plaza. Two years after deciding to make big changes, the architectural firm they’ve hired still hasn’t settled on a final design.

The people behind the the aforementioned “save the plaza” website would prefer making minimal changes to the plaza, although even they have some ideas to improve it, like installing murals, AIDS memorials, and other historical links to the area. The groups who want to replace vs. restore Harvey Milk Plaza may have more common ground than they think; both want a nice subway entrance at Castro and Market, and both agree that some changes are necessary.

For my part I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about whether the plaza should be renovated vs. replaced, mainly because I don’t really like the idea of transit plazas in the first place. Just look at the 16th and Mission BART plaza or the Powell Station sunken plaza by the cable car turnaround — nobody would argue those are excellent uses of public space.

Fortunately Harvey Milk Plaza is significantly smaller and doesn’t suffer from the same problems, but it’s not perfect either. For my part I’d advocate for making the following changes.

First, the above ground portion of the plaza isn’t well integrated into the bus stop along Market Street. In part this is due to the geography of the area, but the bus stop is on a narrow part of the sidewalk and is located a ways back from the main plaza entrance. One way or another this should be addressed.

Second, the plaza’s maintenance is an embarrassment. The sunken garden part of the plaza was fenced off and abandoned long ago, the exposed concrete is dirty and covered in streaks of rust, etc. A new plaza alone isn’t going to address this issue — or could make matters worse if it’s designed without a maintenance plan and a budget to accompany it.

There is a certain irony of course in advocating against certain changes by scrawling in a thick layer of dust to reveal a 1970′s orange paint job. Then again, if they’d simply written “WASH ME” I might not have taken the time to write this blog post.

Musée Mécanique

May 20th, 2019

Musée Mécanique
 

Musée Mécanique is a family run museum of coin operated amusements, many of which are antiques. It’s free to enter but you’ll have to bring or purchase quarters to try the machines. These include everything from arcade games to moving dioramas — I’ll get to what you can expect to find in the museum in a moment.

The first time I visited Musée Mécanique it was a somewhat forgotten back road attraction in the dusty, leaky basement of the Cliff House. There were tarps everywhere to protect the machines, which gave it the feeling of a collection in a dilapidated warehouse rather than a proper museum. Still, the place had character and made sense as much of the collection came from the defunct Playland at the Beach amusement park once located down the street.

When the Cliff House was closed for renovations in 2003, Musée Mécanique relocated to a larger and more tourist friendly location at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s not terribly difficult to find; it’s roughly between the Fisherman’s Grotto and the historic ships at Pier 45.

Now, onto the machines themselves. Having visited Musée Mécanique a number of times over the years, I think they’re best described by category.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Arcade Games seem like the most obvious category of machines, and I found more than I previously remembered seeing during my visit yesterday.

They have everything from mechanical games like pinball or one where you guide a little bulldozer around, to games you might find at Chuck E. Cheese like a ball toss and air hockey, all the way to video arcade games including everything from a Pong knockoff to two player 90′s racing game Cruisin’ USA.

 
Musée Mécanique
 

Creepy Machines are just what they sound like, and typically feature mechanically animated puppets laughing. The best known of these is the life-size Laffing Sal near the entrance, which lurches back and forth and she laughs.

Sal is only one of several of these throughout the place, but it’s by far the largest and best maintained.

 
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Fortune Tellers typically feature the upper body of an old female mannequin who moves around a little, waves her hand over some tarot cards or a crystal ball, and then a fortune appears in a slot below.

It might seem racist and even sexist that the fortune teller figures always appear to be older female gypsies, but as we’ll soon see that’s just touching the tip of the iceberg here in terms of stereotypes.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Love Machines claim to rate how attractive you are, how good of a kisser you are, etc. They’re all conceptually similar to the fortune tellers, but instead of just spitting out a random fortune there’s often some element of input involved, like squeezing a lever or putting your hand on a metal plate.

 
Musée Mécanique
 

Music Machines play, well, music. From the player piano above to a Swiss mechanical music box, it becomes a cacophony of sound when they’re all going at once.

The most impressive of the bunch is a Wurlitzer “band box” near the entrance. It’s behind glass, probably for safety reasons. When fed enough quarters it springs into action, playing a variety of instruments in time with one another as a band would. It can play a handful of tunes, all of which fit the theme of an old carnival or amusement park.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Stereoscopic Photo Machines flip through a series of 3D photos in a special viewer. Many feature local themes like the 1906 earthquake and fire. Several claim to offer risque images though in practice the photos are very much G rated.

 
Musée Mécanique
 

Feats of Strength test your strength. These range from machines where you have to pull two levers together, hit something, or in the photo above, arm wrestle a machine.

The arm wrestling machine is noteworthy because it features a large warning that the machine could break your arm. If you’re not careful at least you’ll have an entertaining story to tell your friends when they ask why you’re wearing a cast.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Dioramas typically show a scene of daily life in motion, or a little stage show with dancers. There’s often an element of music involved. These range significantly in size from a small cabinet to about the dimensions of a ping pong table.

These are often the least reliable category of machines, which includes their two subcategories below — prepare to lose a quarter or two.

 
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Morbid Dioramas are the same thing but with a focus on the macabre. I’m not entirely sure why there’s so many of these, but then again if you want to watch something morbid or violent you have plenty more options these days.

 
Musée Mécanique
Musée Mécanique Musée Mécanique
 

Last but certainly not least, we have the category of Offensive Dioramas. It seems these amusements didn’t stand the test of time at all, raising many questions about what should be considered appropriate entertainment.

In the photos above we have a diorama of an opium den, complete with stereotypical Chinese people depicted as opioid addicts who do little than squirm back and forth. Susie the Can-can dancer seems to be a stereotypical depiction of an African woman with enormous lips, but for some reason is dressed like a Polynesian dancer. What this has to do with Can-can dancing I’m not really sure. And then there’s Dan, the alcoholic puppet you can watch take a drink, because once again addiction is something we’re apparently meant to laugh about.

I’m sure none of these were created with the intention to offend, but they’re regrettable enough in retrospect it’s easy to see why they’re in a museum instead of at, say, a Six Flags.

 
My recommendation: I think anyone who wants to see antique amusements, old arcade games, etc. should consider stopping by. It’s easily the most unique attraction in the entire Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood.

Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze

May 19th, 2019

Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze
Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze Magowan's Infinite Mirror Maze
 

If there’s one common trait among tourists, it’s a complete lack of spacial awareness. Everywhere I’ve been from Barcelona’s historic Gothic Quarter to Millennium Park in Chicago and any place in between, I’ve always had to dodge tourists who stop and jump out excitedly pointing out some mundane detail to their equally clueless companions, like “Look, they have Pizza Hut here too!”

So when I visited Pier 39, San Francisco’s infamously tacky tourist trap, I was there for one reason only: to find my way through Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze. What better way to feel at home among a bunch of easily confused tourists than to enter a carnival-style mirror maze?

The first puzzle is finding the maze itself. Pier 39 is laid out like a generic 1970′s outdoor shopping center, but the Mirror Maze is on the upper level and difficult to spot from below. I went to consult a map, only to spot the maze across from me. To say I wasn’t off to a good start would be an understatement.

The maze entrance is in a short hallway. I stowed my soaking wet umbrella into my backpack and walked in. The woman at the desk didn’t seem to notice me at first, so I said hi. She replied only with “hi” and I actually had to ask about buying a ticket. I handed her a five dollar bill (they also take cards) and she told me to take a pair of plastic gloves from a box. At no point during this interaction did she look at me.

I put the gloves on and went to the maze entrance. It’s dimly lit with color-changing lights inside, and looks nearly the same in every direction. Forging ahead I spotted a family on one side of me, only to realize they were on the other! Soon I found myself seeing my reflections on more and more sides; a dead end. At this point the gloves became helpful, allowing me to touch the mirrored walls without smudging them with fingerprints.

The maze itself isn’t particularly long though I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to the layout. It’s obviously sort of ring-shaped, but aside from that I have no idea. It’s intensely disorienting in there — which of course is the entire point. By the time I stumbled across the exit I’d only been in there ten minutes or so.

As I exited and disposed of the gloves I couldn’t help but to think I’d have a much better impression of Pier 39 if they had more carnival attractions. They already have gift shops and junk food stands, why not throw in say a love boat ride and a ferris wheel?
 

My recommendation: I have a simple mnemonic to remember how to avoid tourist traps in major cities: “Hard Rock Cafe? Go the other way.” Pier 39 itself was the inspiration for this simple rule. Still, if you have the focus to visit Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze without getting distracted by tacky restaurants, insufferable gift shops, and crowds of blissfully unaware tourists, it’s a fun but short little adventure. I’d consider trying it again if I were in the Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Last of the Howard Street folding streetlights removed

May 18th, 2019

Folding streetlight removed Folding streetlight removed
 

For many years the section of Howard Street just outside Moscone Center featured some unusual French folding streetlights. During the day they stood straight up, and at night folded over the street as their lights turned on.

I’m not clear on the details, but somehow Willie Brown got these fancy lights for free; I assume they must have fallen off the back of a truck.

During the recent renovation of Moscone Center all but one of these streetlights were removed, leaving a single folding streetlight at the corner of 3rd and Howard — until last week when this last one was removed.

While walking past the corner I took the above photos showing the hole in the ground where the streetlight once stood, and later the sidewalk patched up to cover the hole. An unremarkable end to one of the more unique street design elements from San Francisco’s recent past.

Finding the Faery Door in Golden Gate Park

May 13th, 2019

Faery Door
 

Do you believe in faeries? Also spelled “fairies,” these small human-like woodland creatures appear in numerous fantasy stories. Are they related to elves or hobbits? I’ve never been certain about the lineage. Perhaps I’ll inquire if I ever meet one.

This morning I woke up with the idea that I should visit more of the local oddities here in San Francisco. After my recent trip across America I’d explored some of the stranger off-kilter attractions across the country; why not continue the trip in a way by finding one of many such attractions here at home?

I decided to track down the Faery Door, a tiny but magnificent little door installed at the end of a log somewhere in Golden Gate Park. The location is a secret; all I’ll say is it’s outside the Japanese Tea Garden in a public area of the park. It took me a while to find it, I walked right past it at first. It’s well hidden in plain sight along an off the beaten path trail.

It was clear others had stopped by recently to leave fresh flowers both outside and inside the Faery Door. Perhaps this door is less secret than I had assumed; or were the fresh flowers the works of the faeries themselves?

The Faery Door has several sister doors throughout the Bay Area and an official website. For those seeking more answers an official book regarding these magical little doors is available from the website.

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Life on board the train

May 11th, 2019

Amtrak
 

I assume most people have never ridden the California Zephyr route — if they’ve ever been on Amtrak at all. This post is for those curious about what life is like aboard the train. It’s an important consideration since the entire route is a serious time commitment at around 52 hours.

From Chicago heading west the trains quickly became less crowded. The train was full in Chicago but had plenty of empty seats by the time we reached Omaha. Aside from April not being peak travel season, I suspect Amtrak is a more typical form of travel for those east of the Mississippi.

As for what to do on the train, I’d recommend downloading some TV shows or movies onto a laptop or tablet. Over the course of the trip I had enough time to read two books and start a third, but a few sections of the train track are too bumpy to make reading a pleasant experience.

Another thing to do is plan adventures your for your next destination — particularly when there’s wifi or at least cell service. I figured out details like how I was going to get around, booked tickets for tours and events, found unusual sights to see, etc. I wouldn’t recommend booking accommodations at the last minute though, nor anything that could sell out months in advance.

 
California Zephyr
Crossing the Mississippi River
 

The most obvious thing to do is look out the window. The lounge car is built specifically for this since the windows are very large and you can go downstairs to the cafe for drinks and snacks. But really there’s a good view from any upstairs window seat.

Occasionally we got an announcement about what we were seeing, such as when we went over the Mississippi River. For the most part when I was curious about what I was seeing I relied on Google Maps.

At least one group of people on each train I was on took a booth on the lounge car and passed the time with card games. A deck of playing cards can be purchased from the cafe.

 
California Zephyr
Coach legroom with my backpack
 

Even at its most packed the coach section is roomy, with big aisles and plenty of legroom. When the seat next to me was empty I’d often stretch out and use all the space, which felt surprisingly luxurious. In coach from what I understand you can switch seats whenever you like as long as you stay in the same car and move the destination card above the seat with you. Be warned that if you switch cars you could miss your stop — passengers are assigned cars by destination, and not all doors open at every stop!

I have less to say about my two nights on the sleeper cars because, well, I was asleep. Yes they’re a little cramped, though comfortable enough. In general I had no problems sleeping in a roomette aside from getting jolted awake a couple times. To reduce noise I brought along “Leight Sleeper” brand foam earplugs. The train announcements stop during the night so people can sleep without interruption, though the train whistle still goes off throughout the night for safety reasons.

While in the sleeper cars I always set an alarm on my phone to wake up in time. Conductors go around knock on doors to wake people up before their stop, though I wanted to wake up a little early for a shower and breakfast.

There was only one part of the trip where we were told not to move between cars; inside the Moffat Tunnel between Denver and Salt Lake City. It’s a long tunnel and the ventilation is bad, so if anyone opened the doors between cars it might fill up with diesel smoke.

Every few hours at a stop we’d be invited to exit the train for a “fresh air break,” which in practice was mostly a chance for smokers to take a quick cigarette break on the station platform. That said it’s a good chance to go stretch your legs and take photos.

In the cafe, nearly everything is prepackaged and the food is often microwavable (they work the microwave for you.) It’s somewhat overpriced and disappointingly is not open 24/7. You can allegedly order “meals” here but they’re ghastly smelling TV dinners. The worst thing I personally ate from the cafe was a bagel, a chewy mess.

 
Amtrak breakfast
Dining car early breakfast
 

The dining car is a step up from the cafe. It’s included if you’re in a sleeper (but bring cash for a tip) or as a paid option in coach. Not the most exciting menu, but it meets most diets. Unlike on an airline it’s served on plates with metal knives and forks. There’s even a tablecloth! Don’t get me wrong though, the food’s more like Applebee’s than a gourmet restaurant.

The worst item I tried on the menu were the salads, all of which came with wilted lettuce; they should have taken them off the menu. The best item was the baked potato side dish. The after dinner deserts were all fine, but I only ordered them so I’d have an excuse to stick around and chat.

All tables on the dining car are communal, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ride. If you’re traveling as a couple or group you’ll get seated together, but those of us traveling alone could get seated anywhere. This is an underrated aspect of dining on Amtrak — meeting random people on the train. The conversation starters are obvious:

“So where are you going?”
“..and why Amtrak?”

A surprising number of my fellow passengers were just like me: those who’d never been on Amtrak before, but were curious to try it. It doesn’t bode well for Amtrak’s California Zephyr if most of the passengers are new rather than loyal riders. I’d expected the typical rider would be older men afraid of flying; yet I only met one passenger who fit that profile during the entire trip.

Another surprise was how many passengers were heading to San Francisco. I didn’t want to play tour guide since I was on vacation myself, but I did answer some basic questions. This worked out fine as nearly everyone had a concrete plan already. Mostly the SF-bound crowd only wanted to chat about their plans or to ask simple advice like where to find good coffee near their hotel.

The entire time I was in the dining cars I couldn’t help but to worry about my backpack, especially if it was in coach. In practice Amtrak seems relatively secure, though if they had private lockers it would have given me more peace of mind.

 
Amtrak
A scenic fresh air break
 

Tipping is an aspect of Amtrak I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s straightforward enough in the dining car if you treat it like any other restaurant. Still, what do you tip the conductors? They accept tips in cash when they greet you as you leave the train. It never felt mandatory to me in coach, but on the sleeper cars conductors do everything from making the beds to making coffee.

I’m not very good at remembering to carry cash so unfortunately I only tipped the second sleeper car conductor. I gave him $20. Was that the right amount? Hell if I know. Just because I’m American doesn’t mean I understand all of our tipping practices.

It’s worth pointing out that food on the dining cars — but not alcohol — is included in the price for sleeper passengers. You just write your car and room number down similar to how you’d bill something to your room at a hotel. However this doesn’t mean tips are included, and the only option is to tip in cash. This is a little confusing since you won’t see a bill, you’ll just have to remember the menu price of what you order and tip accordingly.

 
Amtrak
 

Conclusion

The big question is, would I do it again? The answer is yes and no. Yes, I’d consider riding Amtrak again, but not this route. Why? Three reasons. First, I’ve already done it, so if I took another Amtrak trip like this I’d go on a different route and visit new places. Second, my favorite stops by far on the trip were Chicago and Denver, and both of those are far away enough it’s faster and cheaper to fly.

The third reason I wouldn’t repeat this route is a personal one: of all the major stops for travelers on this Amtrak route, the last destination is where many are headed for their trip: San Francisco. As I went across the Bay Bridge on an Amtrak shuttle bus from Emeryville to San Francisco I couldn’t help to watch other passengers marvel at the city skyline and try to spot Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.

Yet all I could think about was going back to work on Monday. I was the only passenger who left the bus at the first stop, the Temporary Transbay Terminal. Everyone else was headed to a hotel — where my vacation ended, theirs was just beginning. I couldn’t help but to feel jealous.

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Tickets, scheduling, stations, and boarding

May 10th, 2019

Amtrak
One of many views along the way
 

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the California Zephyr’s schedule is very inflexible. Each stop gets one train per day, per direction. This is not a commuter train.

While planning my trip I purchased the majority of my train tickets directly from Amtrak’s website. These tickets appeared in the Amtrak app on my phone. To make sure internet access wouldn’t be an issue I saved the tickets to Apple Wallet. I assume there’s a similar option on Android.

I purchased one ticket through Amtrak Vacations — the official third party travel agent for Amtrak — because I had a gift certificate from them. They typically arrange package deals but will purchase any Amtrak tickets you’d like as part of a “custom” trip. The price is no different than booking through Amtrak itself. I had to call them to buy tickets, which they emailed to me. The only real downside is you can’t load these tickets onto the Amtrak app.

The total cost for all the Amtrak segments from Chicago back to San Francisco was $602 with an early booking discount. That included three coach tickets and two overnight roomette sleeper tickets.

 
Amtrak app
 

The Amtrak app was a must-have for checking train arrival times, I found it very accurate. Whenever my train was running late I’d go have a coffee or something before heading over to the station.

As mentioned above the app also displays your tickets. The tickets themselves are QR-style codes scanned with a handheld device.
 

Boarding worked differently at each station. The gist of it is that someone scans your ticket, hands you a boarding slip with your destination on it, and directs you to a certain car. Usually your conductor meets you at the door.

The stations vary significantly as well. Some are old stations which serve (or served) multiple passenger rail lines, dubbed union stations back in the day. Others are nothing more than a small waiting room.

 
Union Station, Chicago
 

In Chicago I waited in the Grand Hall of the old Union Station until my train was called. True to Chicago’s form the station is at least two buildings with an underground “pedway” connecting them. From the waiting area they walked us to our trains in a cavernous underground station where they scanned our tickets.

I have to admit this is a confusing station, many of the signs seem confused as well. Fortunately Amtrak has staff to help find your way around. The newer part of the station has a newsstand and a basic mall-like food court. It’s nothing special, I’d recommend going outside for better food and shopping options.

 
California Zephyr
 

Omaha’s old Union Station is now a museum, so Amtrak has a tiny station without much going on. It’s not a major stop but it’s big enough to have an indoor waiting area with a heater.

When the train arrived a conductor jumped off and called us outside. There were maybe 10 people tops so it didn’t take long to scan everyone’s tickets.

 
Denver's Union Station
 

Denver’s old Union Station isn’t nearly as large as Chicago’s, but it’s completely different. For one thing the interior is filled with shops, upscale dining options, and even a hotel. I considered eating at the station a couple times but it was always too busy.

I asked how to board at the Amtrak window, they directed me to a platform where a line of passengers were already waiting in line for the same train.

 
Amtrak SLC
 

In Salt Lake City I might be a little fuzzy on the details because the train was running super late; I think I boarded after 2 AM. It’s a slightly larger version of the Omaha station.

A few people wandered in who had some kind of Greyhound voucher which they exchanged for Amtrak tickets. The conductor scanned everyone’s ticket, told us all to stay inside until he called our group; which everyone promptly ignored and went outside. In fairness I’m sure all the passengers were all as tired as I was.

 
Amtrak's Reno station
 

Reno’s station layout is pretty strange, but essentially you wait in the “basement” next to the sunken railroad tracks. The guy who took my ticket told me which train car to get on relative to the end of the train (this confused many people) and the conductor of that car assigned a seat to me. While sleeper cars are always assigned, this is the first time I had an assigned seat on coach. Realistically you could sit wherever, the “assignments” were not enforced and there were plenty of empty seats.

The weirdest element of the Reno station is in the photo above: there’s an elevator intentionally blocked off by a row of chairs. Fortunately it’s not the only elevator.
 

Of course, not all stations are as large as these. Many stops in small towns are nothing more than couple benches next to sign bearing the Amtrak logo. As a general rule the larger stations tend to be at stops with luggage service.

If I had one piece of advice for Amtrak here it would be this: the boarding procedures should be more straightforward and remain as consistent as possible between stations. Anything to reduce passengers’ cognitive load is welcome… especially when their train arrives at 2 AM.

Reno wrap up and stray observations

May 5th, 2019

Reno sign
 

Reno: it’s the city most of us think of either as a second-rate Las Vegas, or a spot you stop by on your way to somewhere more interesting like Lake Tahoe — or Las Vegas.

What I’m saying is most of us tend to view Reno less of as a destination and more of a rest stop. Which is unfair because Reno actually has a lot to offer. Unlike in Omaha where I was bored after 48 hours, I spent the same amount of time in Reno and felt rushed for time. Not just because it was the last top on my trip, but because I realized I wouldn’t have time to stop by the Nevada Museum of Art or the nearby Sundance Books and Music — a bookstore housed in an old mansion.

 
Harrah's
 

Before I say too many good things about Reno, I stayed at Harrah’s, a casino hotel that’s just old. It’s the only hotel I stayed at on this trip as there weren’t many Airbnb’s in downtown Reno.

Aside from the convenient downtown location right across the street from Amtrak there’s not much to say about this hotel, apart from the obvious fact that it was last renovated around the time Bill Clinton was elected president.

 
Truckee River
 

The Truckee River cuts through Reno. Along the river there’s a pedestrian path with a variety of parks, restaurants, and cafes. I particularly enjoyed dinner at Campo and the coffee at Hub Coffee Roasters, both of which are right on the river.

Heading west along the river from downtown, there’s a small island with an amphitheater called Winfield Park, and just across the street is a little sculpture garden called Bicentennial Park. Further west — not too far past Hub Coffee Roasters — a much larger park called Idlewild features a lake, various gardens, activities, and plenty of space for stretching your legs or having a picnic.

 
Former post office building Former post office building
 

Just across the Truckee River from downtown is an old Post Office building from the public works era. It’s no longer used as a mail facility; the upstairs is now a West Elm store.

Sounds disappointing unless you somehow know to go downstairs to the basement where you’ll find a cafe, a bar, a salon, and other local businesses. There’s also a history wall with old photos of Reno, including the “quickie divorce” era in which Reno’s main attraction was its liberal divorce laws.

The basement is a hidden gem I would never have known about without the suggestion by a friendly local. I definitely would have stopped by for a coffee if I’d known about it in advance.

 
Death & Taxes Death & Taxes Death & Taxes Death & Taxes
 

Midtown’s Death & Taxes might be the most ridiculous cocktail bar I’ve ever visited, but it’s so photogenic I had to include it here despite not staying long. The first clue the place would cost more than a nice dinner was I arrived in the late afternoon and it wasn’t happy hour, because they don’t have one. The second clue is the woman behind the bar who greeted me was cutting up roses… which I quickly realized were intended as cocktail garnishes.

The guy sitting next to me had ordered an entire ~750ml bottle of some liquor for himself, and offered me a sip which I politely refused. He clearly had a lot of money to throw around as he chatted with the bartender about some overpriced gin aged in whiskey barrels, which he claimed “tastes just like whiskey.” The guy on the other side of him laughed loudly and said “so just drink whiskey!” That guy had a point.

Just before I left a middle aged couple walked in. The wife ordered something from the cocktail menu, while the husband ordered some kind of call drink with Jose Cuervo. His wife shot him a dirty look, and without missing a beat the hip bartender said they didn’t have Cuervo and recommended their well tequila. Burn!

 
Junkee
Junkee Junkee Junkee Junkee
 

I’ve saved the weirdest for last, one of a lot of weird places in Midtown. Junkee is a large store selling all kinds of costumes, antiques, and secondhand goods.

The words to describe this store don’t exist yet. They have everything from old chairs, used jewelry, vintage comic books, armored knight costumes, and even a bowl of dolls correctly labelled “creepy.”

I’m not sure Junkee is the absolute weirdest store in Midtown — I did enter one small store there which had a giraffe skull for sale — but Junkee is a reasonably priced spot for costumes and odd decor.
 

One last observation about Reno; it’s easily the most friendly place I visited on this whole trip. Locals would just stop to say hello or good morning, help me out if I looked lost, and even recognized me if we crossed paths a second time. The city’s motto is true, Reno really is “the biggest little city.”