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Archive for April 2013

2 Days in Portland

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Below is my half-ass attempt to finally write something about my west coast trip last month.

As mentioned before, we arrived by Amtrak. I enjoy the nice leisurely pace of train travel and got to see a part of the country I had never seen before, but it was a once in a lifetime experience. That is to say, I wouldn’t want to do it again without good reason. Next time I travel out west, I’m flying or driving, if I have companions to ride with.


Freight train on the opposite (south) side of the Columbia River, Sunday morning, just after sunrise.

We arrived in Portland on Sunday – St. Patrick’s Day. Didn’t do any drinking, aside from the enormous 22 ounce Czech beer with my dinner (more on that later), so I can’t offer any bar or club recommendations. But I know Portland is a pretty good place for local brews.

After checking our bags into the guesthouse we wandered downtown and made our way to the “Saturday” market near the riverfront, which I guess was also taking place on Sunday. Lots of vendors selling homemade arts & crafts items and lot of food carts. I bought a scrumptious lamb gyro for lunch.


Fee fi fo fum

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around downtown, within the confines of I-405 and the river. Portland is a very walkable city (at least downtown is) but there is also an excellent streetcar service and bus service that seems to run 24 hours a day. We visited a number of parks, including the well-designed Ira Keller Fountain by Clay St. It’s very play-friendly during the summer months when the water is flowing.


Ira Keller Fountain, sans running water.

I cannot say enough good things about the Northwest Portland Guesthouse, where we stayed for two nights. Three old houses have been converted into overnight accommodations, two houses serving as the hostel with a kitchen (free homemade bread & coffee each morning) and the other being the guesthouse. The difference between them is that Viet & I were in the guesthouse and didn’t have to share a room with strangers. We had to share bathrooms with the others at the guesthouse but that wasn’t a problem as there were two downstairs (one with a shower) and one upstairs (with shower). I think only once I wanted to go and they all were occupied, but it wasn’t a big deal to wait and I didn’t have to wait long.


What the Mandalay *should* be.

Our room was great; very spacious, no TV (which was fine with us, we didn’t travel halfway across the country to watch damn television!) none of the usual “frills” of being at a hotel like vending machines or a swimming pool or “continental breakfast”, aside from the aforementioned free black bread and coffee (we ended up walking a few blocks to Trader Joe’s and picked up burritos to make for breakfast anyway), The room had a view of an old gorgeous synagogue across the tree-lined street. It was just a bed in a room, which is all we really needed for overnight accommodations. And for the price and location (only a few blocks from downtown), it couldn’t be beat. We looked up hotels near downtown and the closest we could find under $100 per night was a shoddy three-star joint with some sketchy photos. I highly recommend this place to anyone visiting Portland. The guesthouse, that is… I’m too old and I earn too much nowadays to be sleeping in hostels anymore.


This room was bigger, more stylish and more comfy than most hotels I’ve stayed at.

Dinner Sunday night was at the Fish Grotto, a seafood joint a mile’s walk from our lodging. The décor was okay (the waiter claimed they were remodeling) but the food was absolutely fantastic. Loved the crab-filled mushroom appetizers. A bit pricey though; our meals, plus my hearty Czech beer, totaled $78.

After dinner we walked to Voodoo Donuts and waited in line for about 30 minutes for one of their namesake treats. It tasted alright. Lots of sugar and filling. Their display case had a lot of different delicious-looking options, but I wouldn’t waste my time waiting in line again just for a donut. If you like treats, try it out, but be prepared to wait. We walked by earlier in the day and the line stretched past two city blocks!

Any trip to Portland must include going to Powell’s City of Books. It’s the largest new and used bookstore in the world. Several floors, stairways and aisles of floor to ceiling bookcases to get lost in. I came prepared with a list of book titles and authors to look for, and it still took us an hour to find what I wanted. Without a list, I could have easily spent an entire afternoon wandering around. I picked up a nice hardcover edition of Blood Meridian, a used copy of It’s All About the Bike, and a book of musings by Mindy Kaling (just finished reading; kinda okay). Viet bought Bossypants by Tina Fey, which I will read as soon as he’s finished with it.


Bring a map. Or don’t. Getting lost in here is easy to do, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing…

About all we did on Monday was ride the streetcars, visit the OMSI and go out for dinner. An important notice about the streetcars – there are two lines that run through downtown, NS and CL. The NS line runs NW/SE and loops around Portland State campus, while the CL line stays closer to the Pearl district and crosses the Willamette River to run SE towards the OMSI. I clearly asked the lady at the front desk of the hostel which stop to get on in order to reach the OMSI, city map in hand, unfolded and on display in front of her, and what does she do? She directs us to a stop for the wrong line. GRRRR.


We didn’t figure this out until, oh, about an hour later, when we reached the final stop at the SE tip of the NS line. A maintenance guy who boarded the car informed us we could either ride the car back towards downtown, transfer to the right line (for which we’d need to buy another $1 ticket) and then cross the river, or just walk to the nearest pedestrian bridge and cross on foot. Both options, he claimed, would take about 45 minutes. We opted to walk. It took about an hour. So overall it took two hours to go from our guesthouse to the museum. Blerg.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is alright if you like kid-friendly displays and IMAX theaters. There is also a decommissioned submarine docked along the riverside. We bought tickets to all three (museum, IMAX and sub) as well as to the traveling Mythbusters exhibit, which was kinda worth it. Overall I think I spent $25-30 on admission. In hindsight, I would have passed on the IMAX and sub tour. They weren’t that great (they were screening “The Hobbit” but not on the day we were there). The museum was okay but most of the exhibits seem geared more towards children and students than adults. To their credit, they have multiple electric vehicle charging spots right in front of the building. Good for them!

Sad to say, the best part about going to the OMSI was Theory, the indoor restaurant. No joke, for $8 I had one of the best burgers of my life. Every bite of the “Mmmm burger” was SO GOOD! Grilled chicken, grape compote, bacon and beer cheese on ciabatta. I seriously wanted to buy another and take it with me to eat later. Viet enjoyed his $5 salad so much he actually did go and buy another to eat! The décor was on par with a five-star restaurant, and oddly enough there was almost no one there, on an early Monday afternoon.


I wanted to check out the Bagdad Café and a few parks on the east side of Portland but we were pretty wiped by the time we left the museum. Took the CL streetcar back over to downtown and we walked back to the guesthouse. I was tired and cranky and upon entering our room I took a three-hour nap. When I woke up Viet has picked out our dinner location, a Vietnamese restaurant only two blocks from our place. Fish Sauce. Pretty good pho noodles and jicama rolls, nice ambience, reasonable prices.

Two days is not nearly enough time to see more than a handful of things I wanted to see while in Portland, which only means I’ll be going back again. Hopefully soon. We checked out Tuesday morning and walked back to Union Station, stopping at an REI store along the way. Nice products but a little out of my price range.

Thoughts on Seattle later this week.


Written by camcarlson

April 24, 2013 at 10:02 PM

Posted in Travel

We’re all in this together

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I don’t know what it is about this photo that makes it feel like a big warm hug, but that’s what it feels like when I look at it.


Written by camcarlson

April 17, 2013 at 10:37 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Amtrak Transcontinental

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Thought I’d divide my spring break vacation into two posts, the first focused on my Amtrak experience.

The first leg of my vacation was between the Twin Cities and Portland OR. The train left MSP shortly before midnight (about an hour behind schedule) and arrived in PDX around 10am. Two nights of sleeping in train seats one step up from airplane seating but a few steps below “used couch in the basement rec room” in terms of comfort.

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There’s not much to see between the Twin Cities and North Dakota, but once you get into Montana the terrain gets hilly. It was only due to poor timing that we approached the Rocky Mountains at the same time that the sun was setting, so our view was rather short-lived.

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The train decoupled in Spokane, splitting between one train heading to Seattle and the other to Portland. We awoke Sunday morning having already passed through the Cascades and traveling west along the edge of the Columbia River. Pretty views of big hills and the occasional waterfall.

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The regional train service between Portland and Seattle was the best of the three routes; comfy leather seats, ceiling-mounted television sets and clean bathrooms! Not to mention the trip was shorter than it would have been driving on I-5, and a round-trip costs less than a tank of gas… no wonder so many people were aboard this train.


The third leg was between Seattle and the Twin Cities. We got to see the Cascades and awoke on Friday morning to the snowy Rockies. Beautiful scenery. We passed through a 7-mile tunnel, noted as the second-longest or third-longest in the western hemisphere. Also passed a stone obelisk marking the continental divide and a town that claims to be the geographical center of North America.

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Most of the stops along the way were in small cities — Havre MT, Monit ND, and a slew of towns that barely register on the map. Lots of dirt roads, dive bars, pickup trucks, buffet-style restaurants, single-story houses with barking dogs penned up in chain-link fenced yards, et cetera.

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Overall, I’m glad I took the opportunity to travel by train, but it was kind of a one-time experience. I traveled by Amtrak because I had the free time and wanted to see the countryside. Now that I’ve seen it, next time I head that way I’m just going to fly, even if it costs more. I would have rather spent more time in Portland or Seattle than in a train car.

If I had to take train overnight again I would definitely fork over the extra dough for one of their sleeper cars so I could have an actual bed to sleep in. Trying to sleep semi-upright in a chair with inadequate cushioning is an exercise in futility. Not to mention the constant disruption from coughing hags, cell phones going off, crying infants, constant bumps on the rails, et cetera.

Oh and forget about dining on the train – meals in the dining car start at $20 ($25 for dinner), and a beer in the lounge is $5.25 (for a can of Bud Light). Fortunately you can bring your own food on board, so be sure to stock up at the local grocery store before boarding. Station stops usually only last 5-10 minutes, not long enough to head into town and grab food somewhere. So come prepared!


Written by camcarlson

April 7, 2013 at 9:20 PM

Posted in Travel

RIP Roger Ebert

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Cancer ended his life after 70 years, just one day after the 46th anniversary of when he became the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. I want to say I’m saddened by this, but frankly, I just feel empty. Like I knew it was going to happen, but I had hoped it would have been many years from now. Only yesterday he wrote about taking a “leaving of presence” from his usual review-writing duties:

The immediate reason for my “leave of presence” is my health. The “painful fracture” that made it difficult for me to walk has recently been revealed to be a cancer. It is being treated with radiation, which has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as I used to. I have been watching more of them on screener copies that the studios have been kind enough to send to me. My friend and colleague Richard Roeper and other critics have stepped up and kept the newspaper and website current with reviews of all the major releases. So we have and will continue to go on.

24 hours after I read that, I found out he had died. It’s… not fair.


I was introduced to the language of cinema by my high school ALPHA teacher Steve McCrea, but it was Ebert who introduced me to film criticism and taught me how to “read” a film. Through his reviews and opinions, I developed an interest in classic movies as well as found my own particular tastes in films, somewhat but not always similar to his own. I remember reading his reviews online when I was a teenager. Friday mornings during college I would rush myself to the computer terminals at the Rod Library between classes so I could glance at the week’s latest releases and see if he awarded any four-star ratings (based on a rating system he often said he disliked). It was also a treat to read his rare zero-star reviews, in which he would scorn filmmakers with witty derision.

For many years he would write an in-depth review for his “great movies” series. I’ve maintained a list of movies to see at some point in my life and I’ve kept the titles from his list in a separate column on the front page. Blake and I occasionally discuss how many of the films we have seen or have left to see. The number of films on the list (I’m not going to count) is somewhere between 300 and 400; about 50 of them I have yet to watch. It’s sad to think that list is never going to receive any new additions, and will only get shorter until I have seen them all… which (seriously) is one of my life goals.

From one of my favorite of his journal entries:

What I believe is that all clear-minded people should remain two things throughout their lifetimes: Curious and teachable. If someone I respect tells me I must take a closer look at the films of Abbas Kiarostami, I will take that seriously. If someone says the kung-fu movies of the 1970s, which I used for our old Dog of the Week segments, deserve serious consideration, I will listen. I will try to do what Pauline Kael said she did: Take everything you are, and all the films you’ve seen, into the theater. See the film, and decide if anything has changed. The older you are and the more films you’ve seen, the more you take into the theater. …

Those who think “Transformers” is a great or even a good film are, may I tactfully suggest, not sufficiently evolved. Film by film, I hope they climb a personal ladder into the realm of better films, until their standards improve. Those people contain multitudes. They deserve films that refresh the parts others do not reach. They don’t need to spend a lifetime with the water only up to their toes. …

Do I ever have one of those days when, the hell with it, all I want to do is eat popcorn and watch explosions? I haven’t had one of those days for a long time. There are too many other films to see. I’ve had experiences at the movies so rich, so deep–and yes, so funny and exciting–that I don’t want to water the soup.

I’m sure the NYT won’t be the only outlet that claims “Citizen Kane” was his favorite film. But anyone who followed his writing knew his heart belonged to “La Dolce Vita”. I’m going to rewatch it this weekend.

Written by camcarlson

April 4, 2013 at 5:46 PM

Posted in Cinema

Tagged with

Good intentions

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I’m not dead, I’m not imprisoned and I haven’t been hospitalized. I simply haven’t had the time nor the strength to write about my spring break trip to the west coast since I returned to Cedar Falls last month due to picking up a nasty cold from a fellow Amtrak passenger, which I’ve only managed to shake this week. So now that I feel tip-top again and can find the gumption to make it to the gym on a somewhat regular basis (after a 3-week hiatus… ouch) I figure I should get things in writing before they slip too far into the deep dark recesses of my brain.

Because I have out-of-state friends visiting tonight, a thorough write-up worthy of the experience will have to wait until this weekend. But at least I’m now committing myself to the task. Progress by piecemeal, I suppose.


Written by camcarlson

April 3, 2013 at 4:16 PM

Posted in Travel