An Amtrak Travelogue: Chicago and Back Home (Part 2 of 2)

Joe Writes . . . 

The stop after Albion is Battle Creek. The land adjoining the tracks is largely devoid of buildings except for the occasional strip bar or motorcycle club. As in any good detective novel, life is hard lucky charmsfor those living on the wrong side of the tracks. Evidence of the railways’ importance to the cereal industry abounds. Grain cars sit empty waiting for the next assignment and I envision an entire car filled with tiny marshmallows to mix into Lucky Charms. We have been playing peek-a-boo with the Kalamazoo River for a while and just after departing Battle Creek I notice a sorry tributary of the Kalamazoo running through a concrete sluiceway. I am reminded of the Grand River in downtown Jackson; there’s not much that is sadder than a river encased in concrete.

Next stop: Kalamazoo itself. It’s increasingly grey and rainy, making it difficult to see more than a short distance into the passing landscape. On the return trip I will be surprised by the evidence of homelessness visible from the train in Kalamazoo – tents and tarps rigged as shelter behind abandoned buildings, a lone disheveled man squatting down behind a garage – but on this leg of the trip I can’t see much. Shortly after leaving Kalamazoo Linda comments that the train is traveling at 81 miles-per-hour. She knows this because the Waze app on her phone thinks we are in a car and is warning us to slow down. Waze ain’t seen nothin’ yet; we charge through the Village of Mattawan at 110 miles-per-hour. Don’t blink.

I fall asleep and am only vaguely aware of the short patch of Indiana we traverse, steel mills contrasting with lakeside condos and views of Lake Michigan. When I am once again fully-awake the train is slowing as we approach Chicago from the south. This part of the city goes on forever. Like most tourists who visit Chicago’s more-glamorous areas, I’ve never visited Chicago’s South Side. I know there are rough areas and I’m sure there are nice areas, but I’ve never been there. Lou Rawls singing Dead End Street comes to mind. “As soon as I was big enough to get a job and save enough money to get a ticket – to catch anything – I split. But I said one day I’m going to return, and I’m gonna straighten it all out.”

We arrive at Union Station at 10:40 am Chicago Time, four hours and 15 minutes after departing Ann Arbor. Had we driven the journey would have taken about 5 hours. We are rested and ready for the 20-minute walk to our hotel; had we driven we would likely be tired and cranky.

Chicago seldom disappoints. We ate in some wonderful restaurants, including a Peruvian-inspired meal at Tanta Chicago where we were the only people over 35 in the whole damn place. When I was a partner at Metzger’s German Restaurant in Ann Arbor I often heard about Chicago’s legendary Berghoff Restaurant, a place I also remember my berghoff joe photoparents speaking of fondly. It turns out the Berghoff was only a block from our hotel so we ate there our first night in town. My expectations were not high – there are only so many ways to cook schnitzel – but we were blown away by the seafood dinners we both ordered. Linda had spinach-stuffed sole and I had scallops. On our final night in Chicago we ate at a place Linda loves, Eataly. I had never been there and this, too, proved a great choice. There is a fun shop at street level – we bought a big jar of capers in salt, loving capers as we do and never having seen them in salt – and a very good restaurant on the second floor. We both chose pasta dishes – what else? – and were served by a  knowledgeable and engaging young woman. Downstairs again for gelato and then back to our hotel where I fell asleep and missed the Kansas City Chief’s comeback victory in the Super Bowl.

The return leg of our trip on Amtrak was largely uneventful. This time we sat in coach but the seats were still roomy and comfortable. There were a couple of characters in our car, both of whom at different times occupied a seat directly in front of us. One woman had done everything she could to look exactly like Michael Jackson – including, I think, plastic surgery – while the other complained of bed bugs in the car a bit forward of us. Oddballs both but largely harmless assuming the bedbugs were a figment of the second woman’s imagination. I decided that was, indeed, the case after eavesdropping on her end of a bizarre phone call.

So ends our trip to Chicago on Amtrak. For now it’s back to the grindstone, but I can see us traveling by train again soon. Catch you on the river or catch you on the rails.

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An Amtrak Travelogue: Ann Arbor to Chicago

Writing of other things until we can get out on the Grand again.

Part 1 of 2

Joe Writes . . .  

We arrive at the Ann Arbor train station 40 minutes before our scheduled 7:40 am departure for Chicago. The lobby is nearly empty when we get there. More experienced Amtrak travelers begin to arrive about 20 minutes prior to departure. Another early arriver has doused herself in perfume in preparation for her journey. The Eau du Kerosene devotee is easy to spot, an older woman who no doubt burned out her own olfactory sense decades ago. My eyes water and begin to itch. I pray she will not be in our car once we board and am eventually relieved to see her move towards the front of the train and a seat in a coach car.

ann arbor amtrakI splurged; we’re traveling business class on the way to Chicago, celebrating my wife’s retirement from the University of Michigan. Two nights in the storied Palmer House Hotel and eating in good restaurants is on tap, along with shopping for obligatory gifts for grandchildren and visiting a museum or two. We take the train to be festive and also because I hate driving in unfamiliar big cities. The total cost for the two of us on Amtrak was $221: business class on the way to Chicago, coach on the way home with a senior discount applied to both legs of our journey. Driving would require at least two $35 tanks of gas, wear and tear on my car, expensive parking in the city and the incalculable cost to my mental health of navigating a strange city while lost and terrified. Amtrak is a bargain.

The leather seats in business class are roomy and copies of the New York Times are available throughout the car. It tickles me that “the failing New York Times” is provided at government expense during the reign of Donald Trump, and I am glad that Fox News does not offer a print alternative to the Old Gray Lady of real journalism.

The train departs Ann Arbor on time and we enjoy familiar sights along the Huron River. Just shy of Dexter we can’t quite see our own home but glimpse the entrance to our neighborhood. Before long we are remarking on the Jiffy Mix silos in Chelsea. In the farm country between Grass Lake and Jackson there is just enough snow to fill the furrows in the fields, while the top of the corresponding ridges lay uncovered and bare. Deer raise their heads to watch the train roll by, alone or in small herds. The occasional solitary house near the tracks sets me to wondering if I would enjoy living so closely to a busy railroad line. I decide I would, that the sound of a train’s whistle would help me remember that another world exists beyond the confines of my daily horizons.

The approach to Jackson on Amtrak is dreary and depressing. Shabby. Heaps of slag along the track. Abandoned, boarded-up industrial buildings speak of a time when jobs were plentiful and environmental regulations nonexistent. My outlook brightens when we pass through Jackson’s downtown and I spot the authentic farmers market where I once bought the largest, firmest cabbages I have ever encountered. Next door to the market is the Grand River Brewery. Two years ago the brewery welcomed my brother and I after a trip on the Grand River even though we had capsized that day and arrived muddy and feral. Beyond Jackson we pass through Parma, where an old station from the long-defunct Jackson to Parma Interurban now serves as that community’s library. I speculate on how different life must have been in the days when trains stopped regularly in communities like this, promoting commerce and contact with the outside world. Now the trains don’t slow even down.

Parma library

The Parma Library, formerly a stop on the Jackson-Parma Interurban Line.

As the train slows for a stop in Albion we pass the college I attended and the fraternity house where I lived for a year. There are good memories and bad associated with this place. I haven’t had a cigarette in nine years or a drink of anything alcoholic in eight, but my mouth suddenly tastes like an ashtray and I feel hungover. The flashback ends abruptly when we arrive at the Albion station. I crane my neck for a glimpse of Superior St., downtown Albion’s gritty and resilient main drag. I’m pretty sure I was the first Albion College student to discover Lopez Taco House in 1973 or ’74. It is a beloved local institution and I can’t imagine how many jobs it has provided over the years in a place where jobs are not easy to come by.

It’s 8:26 am, an hour since departing Ann Arbor.

lopez taco house

End of Part One


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We’re Back . . . Kind Of

Joe Writes . . .

Yes, we are still alive. No, we did not travel the Grand River in 2019. Yes, we will complete our journey in 2020.

This was not a year for canoeing. I have been busy for at least a year, remodeling one house and preparing another for sale. My wife and I love our new home – located just outside of Dexter, west of Ann Arbor – but we worked like fiends for a long time to make it habitable. Literally. The house was in rough shape. We moved in to our new home early in the summer while the renovation was in full swing and got our condo on the market in August. I’ve included ‘before and after’ pics of the porch at the main entrance of the new house, below. This has become my favorite spot for a sarsaparilla (that’s the correct spelling, I looked it up) before dinner.

My real estate business was slow this year so I took a part-time job at Lowe’s selling appliances. This turned out to be a blessing in that one of the benefits of working at Lowe’s is an employee discount, which I used frequently for renovating the new house and for getting the condo ready to sell. Long story short, I worked three jobs in 2019 – remodeling the house, real estate and Lowe’s – and that didn’t leave much time for canoeing. But I missed it, that’s for sure.

Tom has been busy as well, and while he probably had more time available than I early in the year he is now recovering from surgery on a broken ankle, for crying out loud! He slipped on some ice in that early-November snow storm and now he’s holed up in his apartment, waiting for doctors give him the all-clear to put weight on his ankle again. I’ve urged Tom to work diligently at his rehab so that we can be on the river once the spring surge subsides.

We met up, spouses in tow and Tom in a wheelchair, for Thanksgiving dinner on the Grand River at The English Inn outside of Eaton Rapids, a spot we learned of while paddling that section of the river. It is a beautiful setting and the Thanksgiving menu was wonderful.

On top of all those things, there are people we love with health problems and various other concerns which have consumed our time and thoughts this year. The result, sadly, has been that we did not get out on the river. But we missed it, and we will.

With no news to report from the river until paddling season begins, I plan to use this space to write about other things for the next few months and will urge Tom to do the same. Stay tuned.

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Thanks for visiting our blog. Feel free to leave a comment and we’ll get back to you as necessary. Happy New Year!

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To Dredge or Not to Dredge: What’s Best for the River?

Joe Writes . . . 

diogenesDiogenes, call off your search. An honest man has been found. He’s Spring Lake Township Supervisor John Nash, who opposes a proposal to dredge a channel in the Grand River from Grand Rapids to Spring Lake  because, “. . . it’s not the best thing for the river.”

The purpose of the proposed channel is to allow larger power boats to traverse the river from Grand Rapids to Lake Michigan. I wrote briefly on the proposal in October, and since that time my ambivalence has evolved into opposition. A well-written MLive story containing Mr. Nash’s quote and other information can be found here; writer Brian McVicker is to be commended for a thorough and balanced piece.

The Grand will never return to its pristine original state, but that doesn’t keep me up at night. I love watching the freighters split the piers in Grand Haven, an activity made possible only because, long ago, humans intervened and have maintained that interference for more than a century. Similarly, I don’t like dams on the Grand and am heartened by the recent trend to remove them, but I like the fact that the 6th St dam in Grand Rapids prevents lampreys from getting any further up the river. Weighing the pros and cons of human intervention in nature is not always a simple task.

Our first obligation, however, should be to do no further harm to the Grand while she slowly continues to recover from centuries of neglect and active degradation.

Local politicians and Chamber of Commerce-types often strike at the promise of economic development or increased tourism like a hungry bass hitting a Hula Popper on one of the Grand’s peaceful bayous. Before striking the lure, however, we ought to slow down and examine the costs. In the case of dredging the Grand those costs might include stirring up contaminants that have been buried for decades or destroying little-understood fish and wildlife habitats.

Proponents point to the prospect of economic development and increased tourism, dangling visions of new marinas and riverside restaurants springing up along the banks of the proposed channel. We even have the mayor of one community along the proposed channel – Steve Maas of Grandville – acting as an advisor to the developer of the project, leaving me to wonder how he can both judge the proposal on its merits and act as an advisor to the developer at the same time.

So the Spring Lake Township Supervisor is correct; the focus should be on the river. Not on what’s best for business. Not on what will create jobs or expand the local tax base. The focus should be on the river.

What’s the best way to make the Grand accessible and enjoyable to the citizens of Michigan in an environmentally-responsible, cost-efficient manner? In January I also wrote about great improvements along the Grand in the form of newly-opened Ottawa Sands County Park. Ottawa Sands allows residents to increase their enjoyment and use of the Grand River without increasing the demand on the river’s resources, a far better path forward than dredging a potentially-disastrous channel.

So I’ll sign off now the same way I often do, by urging readers to take the river’s side and  keep in mind that Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends in high places already.

– 30 –

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A Blue Heron Poem

One day after the last leaf landed,
One before the first flake fell, a
Slate blue
Great Blue
Heron flew
Straight through, on his
Way to his
Mate who
Already waded a tropical river, where
Trees leave their leaves on, and
Birds never shiver.
                                    – Tom Neely, 1994
Editor’s note: Brother Tom sent me this wonderful poem and acted as if I must have seen it before. To the best of my knowledge I had not. He said he wrote it after watching a heron flying southwards over Kent County’s Lincoln Lake. We honor and are inspired by herons, who lead us down the river on our quest to paddle the length of the Grand. As the end of winter approaches I, too, long for that place where “trees leave their leaves on, and birds never shiver.”
tom ionia saranac

The poet pauses in his journey.

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Our Perfect-Sized Adventure

March 3, 2019

Joe Writes . . . 

Our adventure is just about the perfect size for me. I decided this after attending the Quiet Water Symposium in East Lansing yesterday.

At the symposium I met a nice couple who paddled from the headwaters of their local river in Ohio, across Indiana into the Ohio River, and from there down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. I talked with another man who was the fourth person to hike the entire length of the North Country Scenic Trail, 4600 miles from BFE North Dakota to BFE Vermont. I listened to a presentation from a guy who was about my age but a lot braver. He guides river trips and survives run-ins with grizzly bears in the far northern wilderness . . . that’s far northern as in above the Arctic Circle, not as in Traverse City Cherry Festival. These are magnificent adventures worthy of the books they all wrote and the rapt attention of the audiences they addressed at the QWS.

paddling edna thru and back

Our friend Dave was also at the QWS. He attended a talk on ‘pushing the boundaries of solo camping’ and for some reason thought I, too, might be interested in that topic. Did I mention that Dave, like the river guide, is also braver than I am? The speaker was talking about wilderness water purification systems when I entered the room, and that’s a boundary I don’t care to push. I’m not drinking Grand River water unless it has been treated 10-ways-to-Sunday by someone I can sue for millions of dollars if I get sick.

So here we are, my brother and I, a couple of old codgers if ever there were such a thing. We are paddling the length of Michigan’s longest river and taking our time about it. We hope to finish this summer but if something comes up, well, whatcha’ gonna do? There’s always next year.

Paddle the mighty Mississippi? Hike and hike and hike the North Country Trail? Stare down grizzlies and stretch the boundaries of wilderness camping? No thanks. I’m 64 years old and have a bum knee which would probably improve if I lost the weight I’ve regained recently. I wake up two or three times a night to use the bathroom and take Aleve most days to keep my arthritis in check.

Set aside the physical difficulties and the fact remains that these trips would take me away from home for extended periods. I would miss my wife, my grandkids, farmers market produce and free-range eggs. And naps. I love an occasional nap.

My brother and I don’t camp, eat dehydrated food, have near-misses with dangerous wildlife or get devoured by mosquitos and blackflies. We don’t walk until our blistered toes are bleeding, but one of us almost always gets a blister on the first day of paddling season – right between the thumb and index finger – and we carry a first aid kit because we might cut ourselves while opening a can of peaches at lunch.

We claim the blue heron as our spirit guide, marvel at bald eagles near Portland, keep track of the different-colored dragon flies we encounter and sing our favorite songs aloud. Most importantly, we paddle the river of our youth with the wisdom of our age.

We just putz along, but with maturity comes the realization that putzing along can be a wise and entirely satisfying course of action.

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Always take the river’s side: Industry and Big Agriculture have plenty of friends in high places.

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Our Mother Stole Relish Packets

Tom Writes . . . 

More About Our Beloved Mother, Who Died

 She used to steal stuff. She went through a phase, maybe twenty or fifteen years ago, when she used to grab packets of condiments from every restaurant. Packets of salt, pepper, relish, mayonnaise, ketchup, sugar, butter, crackers, coffee creamer, Arby’s sauce… whatever she could get. She carried them around in her purse. She thought she was very clever to keep this stash.

I do not know why she did it. Just in case? In case of nuclear attack, she would have Heinz ketchup and non-dairy creamer?

I never saw her use any of this stuff. She and I made sandwiches over the years, but she never pulled out mayonnaise or pepper from her purse for our sandwiches.

When she died last year there were no condiments, no packets of any kind of food left in her purse. It was a green leather purse. I went through it myself, after she died. I wonder whether she might have eaten all those packets, licked them all up, grinning, late at night, when nobody was around, during her final years. Lord knows. Or, maybe she donated them to charity.

I am sure the Lord forgives this sort of thing. Not guilty by reason of absurdity.



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