28 July 2014

The Southwest Chief

When I'm old and gray and settled down
If I ever get a chance to sneak away from town
Then I'll spend my busman's holiday
On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe

The lyrics are by Johnny Mercer and the tune by Harry Warren (who also wrote "Chattanooga Choo-choo"). Here's a film version featuring Judy Garland. There's no more Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, alas, the closest thing we have today is Amtrak's Southwest Chief. And the AT&SF never did go to Santa Fe--directly. The terrain was too rugged and the line went through Lamy, New Mexico instead, and a spur had to be built later to accommodate the capital.

Our fall trip to Philadelphia for NoirCon 2014 will start in Los Angeles with the 2265 mile journey via rail to Chicago. Here's the route map (from Wikipedia):

Yes, that's Kansas. Hence the "Topeka" part. And the "Atchison" as well, although the Southwest Chief doesn't stop there. It crosses the Missouri River and the state line at Kansas City instead, going from KC, KS to KC, MO. The rails nick the southeast corner of Iowa and cross the Mississippi River near Fort Madison on the way to Illinois. Chicago is Amtrak's rail hub, with the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, City of New Orleans, Cardinal/Hoosier State, and Capitol Limited runs all originating or terminating in the Windy City. The Chief passes through Galesburg, Carl Sandburg's birthplace, the one who gave us:
HOG Butcher for the World,
      Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
      Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
      Stormy, husky, brawling,
      City of the Big Shoulders:
We'll find out. Los Angeles and Chicago are the third- and second-most populous cities in the United States. In between are desert, mountains, more desert, more mountains, and plains, lots of plains. There are scheduled stops in Flagstaff about five a.m., Albuquerque about noon, and La Junta, Colorado, about eight p.m. so the mountainous portions of the trip will be in daylight. Freight trains no longer use Raton Pass through the Sangre de Cristos and it is a National Historic Landmark. The scenery should be spectacular. I had intended to take the Zephyr, which crosses the Sierras and the Rockies, but got a better deal on the Chief. I'm looking forward to seeing the Southwest again.

p.s. WordMan™ wanted to know about "busman's holiday." The best I've come up with is from Word Detective. Taking a holiday doing what you do for a living is the basic notion of the phrase and it can be applied to someone who can't seem to put his tools down even on vacation.

22 July 2014

In Search of Noir

I like a lot of things. Beer, for example. Whiskey, too. Giants baseball. Snow-covered mountains. The seashore. People who are funny. That sort of stuff. I also like noir. What is noir, you ask? Here's a definition I like:
Noir tells the stories of tortured souls—losers, psychopaths, loners, obsessives—driven down deadly paths, following desperate plans that are doomed to failure.
Film noir is perhaps what most folks think of as the noir ideal. Cheaply made and poorly lit, Hollywood churned out dozens of B-movies in the 40s and 50s that embody the essence of noir. Watching Burt Lancaster lust after Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross, you knew he couldn't help himself. You knew it was going to end horribly, and it wasn't going to matter how hard anyone tried to stop things from spiraling out of control. When Robert Mitchum laid eyes on Jane Greer in Out of the Past you knew he was a dead man walking, and that everything in between would mean nothing in the end.

But noir is everywhere. Tell me Hamlet is not a loser. An obsessive. Tell me Iago is not a psychopath, and that Macbeth and his Lady are not on a deadly and desperate path. Genesis 4--Cain & Abel--is the first noir tale. Kinsmen, brothers in fact, locked in mortal conflict with the one cursed, the other doomed, their fates decided by envy, that basest of emotions.

Noir is about entropy. Entropy is the greatest, most powerful force in the universe. Things fall apart, man. And when things fall apart, people do crazy shit. Over at my favorite noir site Out of the Gutter, fiction editors Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford have a simple formula:
I wanted this, so I did that, and here's how it all went to hell.
Yep. That's it. A lot of the great noir literature, from James M. Cain to David Goodis to Charles Willeford is about stuff going all to hell. That's the kind of thing I like.

This fall, October in fact, my lovely bride is taking a cross-country journey with me and we will be on a search for noir. Our destination? Philadelphia and NoirCon 2014. Our means of transport? The train. Our starting point? Union Station, Los Angeles. There are about 700 road miles between here and there, so we'll be smack dab in the middle of that other great noir landscape, the highways of the American West. Interstate 5 may be a little too crowded these days for Route 66 flashbacks--no hitchhikers or radiator boil-overs in the lonely desert spaces--but blacktop, chrome, and meth-addled truckers are their own special noir sauce.

Our very dear friend Betty Rosen Ziff will be hosting us during our arrival and departure stays in the City of Angels. (Thanks, B. We love you. You too, Stuart.)

From Siskiyou County to the seamy and seedy sides of the SoCal scene, so let the search begin!

21 July 2014

The View from the Top

I posted about Speed's Trail before--it's the end of hour-long hike that's about a mile west of my house here in Yreka. I've been up there twice this month and it's a good workout with some rewarding views. The elevation gain is about 1100 feet:

That's Badger Mountain in the center distance and the lower part of Humbug in front of it with the old Lange Ranch property in the foreground. The pictures aren't the best as I was using my cheesy phone camera.

Here's Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, and Greenhorn Reservoir. You can see I-5 snaking southward:

Here's a selfie by the sign for "Speed's Trail":

I left at 0800 but it was hot nonetheless and I was soaked in sweat by the time I reached the top. Most of the hike is on dirt roads but the last push to the summit is cross-country. I followed a few deer trails or clambered over the rocks. There's a fading footpath or two that will get you about half the way up, but then you scramble. Last time I wound up in the tall grass and spent an hour plucking stickers out of my wool socks! This time I looked for open patches. Avoiding ticks is always a good thing. It's so bloody hot and dry in these parts that even those pesky little guys seem to be done for the season.

I'm not entirely sure of the land ownership. The map suggests it's Klamath National Forest, but there are posted signs prohibiting vehicles and hunting. There are clearly private property parcels surrounding the bulk of the route, and you have to pass through City of Yreka tracts that border Evergreen Cemetery and contain some of the emergency water storage tanks we hope never to need. Some day I expect to be fenced out as at least two of the roads that branch off the main path are signed "No Trespassing." For now, no one seems to mind me huffing and puffing my way to the top. I'm going to make this a monthly ritual. It will be fun to see how the landscape changes over the seasons. It ought to get a little easier, too!

p.s. click on the photos to enlarge