24 February, 2015

Visiting dear friends...

The purpose of our flight to Seattle was to visit very dear friends nearby. We rented an AWD Toyota Venza, similar to but much less stylish than our Jeep Cherokee. It was a little more spacious inside, but was much less impressive with its technology.
Moss covered trees line the road on US Route 2 into Skykomish.
The barren and beautiful Mt. Index in the Cascade Mountains.

Skykomish is a tiny town in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle, located on the old US Route 2. Its name is an interpretation of the Indian tribe which inhabited the area. We have numerous friends in this place, and it was a real pleasure to pay them a visit. The weather was uncharacteristically warm and sunny - we are used to grey skies and snow cover at this time of year, but neither were evident. How different to the east coast!
Art by nature!
An ample supply of firewood is a necessity for all homes in the Cascades.
Bush cabins near Skykomish are dwarfed by surrounding pine trees.

A highlight of any visit to Skykomish is the trains. The BNSF (Burlington National Santa Fe) is the second largest freight rail in North America and its northern trans-continental line runs through this town on the route from Seattle to Chicago. The company is owned by the investment company Berkshire Hathaway. We see nothing like these trains in Australia which are kilometers long juggernauts of double high shipping containers. A favourite activity is to walk BJ, the gorgeous Alaskan Malamute, up to the line and watch the frequent trains snake by on sweeping curves and over old trestle bridges. The eastbound BNSF trains have to climb through the Cascade Mountains and we've seen as many as 5 huge engines pushing and pulling them.
A giant BNSF freight train awaiting the green light at dusk in Skykomish.
Road, rail and power cut their way through the pine forests of the Cascade Mountains.

One of our walks with our Sky friends was along several miles of an old alignment of this railway. It teaches us what a massive feat of engineering is required to push a railway through the mountains. At least three different alignments have been used over the years, the original in 1893 involved multiple switchbacks, replaced in 1900 by a huge tunnel under Stevens Pass (named after the first principal engineer), and then a much longer tunnel in 1929. The realignments were enabled by improved technology but forced by constant snow avalanches, including one in 1910 which killed ~100 people, the deadliest in US history.
Panorama of the Cascades from the Iron Goat Trail.

We didn't see much of that in our walk along the Iron Goat Trail but what you do see is lots of the old snow sheds and retaining walls that the early engineers built to try to control the inexorable avalanches. The trail is maintained by volunteers and the Forest Service, and they've done a great job! The trail is named after the Rocky Mountain goat which featured on an old railway logo. One thing to say about following old train grades is that they have only gentle slopes, but getting up to the alignment can be steep. Crystal clear (tannin free) waterfalls and creeks cross the trail at many places, the forest is very pretty and birds abound, but the highlight of this trail is certainly the manifest railway history. Mileposts mark the distance from the railway's origin in St. Paul Minnesota. One can only wonder at the difficulties and the privations endured by the labourers of diverse nationalities who worked this stretch.
Tall pines line the climb into the Iron Goat Trail.
The crisp air of the Cascades sharply ut by an aircraft's vapour trail.
Tunnels and snow sheds occupied 75% of the length of this abandoned rail alignment across the Cascades.
Marker to show the number of miles from St Paul.
Huge retaining walls and derlict snow sheds tried to protect the line from avalanches.
Thick moss of this tree in a shady area of the trail.
Dozens of babbling brooks of crystal clear water cross the Iron Goat Trail.
A derelict flume shows where railway engineers once redirected falling water.
Afternnon sun warming the top branches on a steep slope.

From 2005 to 2013, Skykomish town was subjected to a massive toxic-cleanup program by the BNSF Railway. The town had been heavily contaminated by past maintenance and refuelling activities, but it now shows the benefit of this comprehensive renewal program. Sky looks better, brighter and neater than we have ever seen it! The residents are proud of their town.
Trestle bridges span the Skykomish River for the BNSF Railway.

Another delightful walk was around the back of Mount Baring to Barlclay Lake. Glistening in the sun, this lake looked so inviting that it was tempting to have a swim, but given the water temperature is close to that of melting snow, prudence won out. Quite a lot of walkers were seen on this pleasant trail, even though it was midweek and winter. We suppose they were taking advantage of the spectacular weather!
Fallen trees, green moss and a pretty creek along the path to Barclay Lake.
Fungus enjoying their location on an old sawed log.
The outflow from Barclay Lake.
Mount Baring rises like Yosemite's El Capitan from Barclay Lake.
The tempting but freezing Barclay Lake.

And then we went to Gig Harbor to see another friend. Is this the most delightful town imaginable? It is nestled around a bay of Puget Sound, and to get to it you have to cross the legendary Tacoma Narrows Bridge, sparking memories of its collapse in 1940 and lessons of the effect of resonant vibrations in a mild gale due to bad design in old Physics text books. In Gig, bare legs were showing, flowers were blomming, kayakers were stretching their winter muscles on the smooth waters, a seal was basking on a wharf, and the place had a decidedly spring feeling.
Cherry blossoms enhance the appearance of this waterfront 'for sale' property on Gig Harbor.
The expanse and grandeur of Puget Sound as seen from this lookout in Gig Harbor.
Commuter and vehicle ferries to Vashon Island as seen from Gig Harbor.
Taking advantage of afternoon sunshine in Gig Harbor.
House and barn catching the day's last rays across Gig Harbor.
Pods of brilliant colour are springing up in gardens in the unseasonably warm weather.
A large fur seal basking in Gig Harbor.
What a picture is Gig Harbor as the sun sets!

All airports are constrained by space and budget, but Seattle's SeaTac is a good example of what can be done in a retrofit. The terminals were bright and friendly and the eating options were varied (just as well, US airlines have lousy catering, if any). Terminals are connected by free, driverless underground railway (hello Sydney!). A modern and well organised rental car facility sits at one corner of the airport site and operates with elegant efficiency (hello Melbourne!). Security checks are a nightmare, but there's hardly an airport anywhere which does a good job at this!

17 February, 2015

Running hot and cold in NYC

Having battled heavy snowfalls to get back to New York City, the weather warmed up (to about 0C) for most of our final 5 days here. Locals and other tourists complained about the cold, but having been hardened to real cold in the Canadian Maritimes, we thought it verged on balmy, and went out wearing a lot less clothes. But then, it turned bitterly cold again, about -15C, with a strong wind chill in preparation for another major storm. By the time that storm came, we were on a plane to Seattle. By and large, the cold days were bright and sunny but windy; the warmer days are overcast.
NYC dawn from our hotel room.

This sojourn in NYC was a relaxing break from the fairly frantic pace of our driving trip. We did long slow walks and sampled many cafes, bars and restaurants. We talked about going to the theatre, but were basically too lazy to do so - nothing on actually grabbed our fancy sufficiently.
Temporary vents pop-up everywhere in New York City to relieve leaks in the city wide steam heating system.
Afternoon cocktails are a daily routine.

One 'formal' activity we did undertake was to do a tour of United Nations Headquarters in 1st Avenue. Security is quite tight, rather like at an airport, with the usual seraches plus our photos taken and photo-ids scanned. The tour was particularly interesting but in some ways quite frustrating. The tall uninteresting building normally seen on TV when referring to the UN is actually the secretariat, full of bureaucrats.
Visitors to UN Headquarters in the courtyard.

The famous meeting rooms are in an adjacent quite low-slung building, spectacular on the inside with fabulous art-works donated by various member nations. In the large lobby area, changing exhibitions are held - currently a very moving tribute to the horrors of the Holocaust, including much 'forbidden art' hidden from the Nazi perpetrators. We saw all the magnificently decorated meeting rooms, including the Security Council, which had met only that morning. Our guide, Natasha, explained that since 11 September 2001, the public are not allowed into the Security Council while it is in session. We commented that this yet was another victory for Osama Bin Laden, but she didn't seem to understand our dry humour.
UN Security Council is off-limits to the public when in session, since 9/11.

By the way, we were very lucky with out tour group. We were the only two in it, although a late arrival was a UN employee from Beijing.

We were quite impressed with the UN's dedication to human rights, particularly those of childen. The HR articles are graphically displayed in naive art paintings, as if they were created by children. We wonder about Australia's adherence to these principles! And also we saw the UN's 'school in a box', a large suitcase packed with educational resources and rations for distressed children and parents, that is used in the worst trouble spots.
The Aroma Cafe in Houston St get's Clare's award for the best coffee.

We made big use of the MTA, New York's metro train and bus system. Seniors can buy a 'two-way' ticket to anywhere in the network (and back) for $2.50, including multiple trains and transfers to buses. This system is so big and complex, yet fairly easy to navigate, it makes you wonder how it is all managed. During the previous epic winter storm, the subway was shutdown. We suspect that decision is a device to keep people at home and out of harm's way in 'brutal' weather rather than a technical necessity.
External fire escapes are a feature of period NYC architecture.

Our biggest MTA adventure was to City Island, a destination we had had in mind ever since seeing the movie of the same name. City Island is an island in the East River in the Bronx. We caught the train to Pelham Bay Park, the last stop on the line, then a bus. The clever ticket knew exactly what we were doing, and it was easy to make the connections.
The bridge to City Island, captured in this delightful painting.

City Island has one main street (City Island Ave) up the middle, about 2km long. We walked it, and took a few side streets to the water. This Bronx suburb is clearly very popular in summer with many seafood restaurants equipped with huge carparks), but it was very quiet for our visit. Most restaurants were open, but nowhere could we find an espresso coffee (the only such place on this entire trip). We had a light lunch at a very modest cafe which reminded us of one in a tiny Australian town.
On NYC suburb City Island, the authorities go to some length to notify the end of dead end streets.
Throughout our travels, surplus snow is piled up to get it out of the way, this example in a City Island carpark.
Typical marina storage of yachts during winter, cost about $1000.

Outside Macy's main store on Broadway, we encountered a large marquee pumping out loud music and obviously extremely popular with the crowds. It turned out to be Sports Illustrated's launch of its 2015 Swimsuit Edition. All the photographs were on display as posters, and the models were there to be selfied with the punters and autograph their copies of the magazine. Obviously, Mike was sad to leave this place!
Live music at the Sports Illustrated 2015 Swimsuit Edition launch.
Swimsuit models pose for photos with fans, and autograph their pictures in the magazine.

Another delightful walking day was in Soho, Chinatown and then across the Manhattan Bridge. Soho, and the Cast Iron District it encloses, is a swanky area of upmarket brand-name stores housed in exquisite buildings clad in, you guessed it, cast iron. We even found a cafe that, according to our resident afficionado, did the best coffee on our trip so far. In Soho, an episode of Gotham was being filmed - it's amazing the infrastructure which surrounds big budget TV production!
Ornate architectural detailing and fire escapes in SOHO's Cast Iron District.
This building in the Cast Iron District really has its ferrous facade on display.
Sometimes, when you can't have real windows, it's an idea to paint them on.

Chinatown seemed to be like its ilk all over the world, distinctive smells, exotic markets, pirated brand names etc. One fabulous building we discovered in The Bowery was the New Museum, an example of very modern and striking architecture. But we didn't go in.
Ultra modern architecture encloses the New Museum in The Bowery (2007).
Looking west down East Broadway, Chinatown towards the Financial District.

We had no plan to tackle the Manhattan Bridge until we saw it through the arch of the Confucius Plaza, and then decided to go for it. We had walked the Brooklyn Bridge on our visit many years ago, so it seemed right to do another bridge this time. As we arrived in Brooklyn, we encountered a heavy snow flurry, but it didn't last long. We hunted down a subway station and returned to Manhattan.
Panorama of Brooklyn across the East River.
Detailed steelwork in the Manhattan Bridge.

A special place to visit in Manhattan is the market underneath Grand Central Station. Clare discovered this on our last trip here, but we couldn't find it again until we entered via Lexington Ave. The market is full of delicious fresh products and prepared meals, just right for commuters to take home with them after a day at work.
Modern NYC Skyline from 1st Avenue.

We are very sad to have to leave New York. Cold as it is in Janauary and February, it is a wonderful exciting place, full of interesting nooks and crannys, and, being city dwellers, we feel very at home in the noise and bustle.
Manhattan skyline across the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge.