High Line

New York City isn’t the sort of place that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of walking but the city is a treasurehouse for urban exploration. Walking – with a little bit of assistance from the city’s comprehensive bus and subway system – is by far the best way to get under the skin of the ‘Big Apple’ and, to squeeze the life out of this hackneyed metaphor, who knows what you might find – pips, juicy flesh,  maybe even a worm or two?Unlike many American cities, where the assumption is that people prefer to move around in noisy mobile metal boxes, New York is a relatively pedestrian-friendly place. For a wholesome, petrochemical-free experience, there’s always Central Park, but for the past year or so there has been another traffic-free route through Manhattan’s West Side that has transformed a pre-exisiting industrial conduit to a green pedestrian byway.

New York’s High Line, a mile and a half of raised walkway above the working class neighbourhoods of the West Side, was once part of an elevated railway that was built in the 1930s to shift goods to and from the slaughterhouses and packing plants of the Meatpacking District around Gansevoort Street. Defunct by the mid 1980s, the rail line has since been lovingly transformed into a fine green artery that links that same meaty neighbourhood with West 34th Street in Hell’s Kitchen to the north. In place of sleepers and railtracks a landscaped walkway now threads along its length, which is lined on both sides by plentiful benches and seating areas, and long leafy borders filled with grasses, perennials and shrubs. To add a bit of glamour, the Empire State Building peeks above the surrounding city roofline at regular intervals as a reminder that Midtown’s architectural bling is really not so far away.

The real beauty of the High Line is that it does not really have any specific sight to see at either end – the Meatpacking District was never a big tourist draw, although the neighbourhood is currently on the up and being gentrified faster than you can say ‘sushi bar’. Sometime in the future there will be a new American art museum built at Gansevoort Street but, for the time being, rather than any particular goal, the attraction is the High Line itself – the walking of it. What better way to take in the city than to stroll above the streets and buildings where New Yorkers actually work and play out their lives?

Technically speaking, the High Line is an urban park rather than a mere thoroughfare. Its not just for tourists but a place filled with office workers eating sandwiches and  friends taking a stroll together – native New Yorkers looking down on the streets they have known all their lives and seeing them from a fresh perspective. It is also quite remarkably crime-free.

Halfway along, just south of Hell’s Kitchen, the route runs through the West Chelsea district and anyone wishing to pay homage to Sid Vicious or Dylan Thomas (who both died here), or Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell (who all embraced its muse), could do worse than make a short pilgrimage to visit the famous Chelsea Hotel at West 23rd Street. Sadly, the hotel has recently been bought up by a developer and is no longer open to ‘receive new guests’, so artists, writers and rock stars in search of a creative Bohemian atmosphere or a suitable venue for high-spirited shenannigans are now obliged to look elsewhere.

East of Everett – Riding the Empire Builder

Arriving in Seattle, having spent the last two weeks on a small boat, it was time to make use of other forms of transport to get home. Flying all the way Seattle-New York-London would have been straightforward enough but after a fortnight at sea where 8-10 knots was routine I was keen to not only feel the earth beneath my feet for awhile but also to continue at a relatively stately pace. So I opted for the train: first to Chicago, then to New York City from where I would, begrudgingly but inevitably, finally take to the air to cross the Atlantic. By way of a prelude to all this cross-continental railroading I made use of the few hours I had in the city by taking the Seattle Centre Monorail to visit the Space Needle – an all-too-short run across the city centre that actually passes through the multi-coloured sheet metal flanks of Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project Museum before arriving at its terminus.

Amtrak‘s Chicago-bound Empire Builder leaves every afternoon from Seattle, taking around 46 hours – the best part of two days and nights – to reach the windy city on Lake Michigan’s shore. A parallel service runs from Portland in Oregon and both trains join up in the middle of the night at Spokane, Washington. On my first evening on the train I decided to head for the dining car just after passing through Everett, Washington. Here, I met up with Anne (Amtrak waiters insist on grouping solo travellers together at tables – dining on a train in the US is a sociable event whether you like it or not), a grandmother from Seattle on her way to visit various offspring way out east. Travelling in the United States, instant life stories and the brandishing of family photographs to total strangers are pretty much the norm and a shared meal is viewed as a welcome opportunity to make new friends. Anne was no exception. We were all friends here on the train – relaxed friendliness being the default setting of any sort of public transport in the USA. As our conductor would announce later on that night, “Ladies and gentlemen please ensure that you have not put your belongings on the neighbouring seat. We are expecting quite a few travellers to get on at Leavenworth and so you will probably have a new friend joining you when we get there. Let’s make them feel welcome.”

No-one came to sit next to me at Leavenworth but at Wenatchee an hour or so later I was joined by an elderly man called Dale who had just come from a week-long Lutheran Church retreat in the wilds of Washington State. “I see we’ve got us a groaner here”, were his first words to me as he wearily slumped down alongside, throwing a casual nod at the source of the shrill metallic wail that was emanating from the carriage wheels beneath us and had been doing so intermittently since leaving Seattle several hours earlier. Lean and bearded with plaid shirt and baseball cap, Dale might have looked like a typical retired Mid West farmer but was, in fact, a lay preacher in the no-nonsense undemonstrative Lutheran tradition. Despite an outward appearance that might give the impression of being a little ‘ornery’ Dale was the gentlest of men, with a playful, twinkly charm and a thoughtful, considered take on the world. We got talking about Alaska. He had spent a year there as a preacher on an isolated island close to the Arctic Circle just 40 miles from Russia (“And I mean 40 miles, not like that fool idea that that Sarah Palin woman had that she could see Russia from her house in Wasilla”). Dale’s northern sojourn had given him the greatest respect for the native people that endured the difficult living conditions of Alaska’s far north although he acknowledged that there were serious problems of alcohol abuse. “It was supposed to be a dry island but people being people they snuck it in somehow.”

Catching a glimpse of western Montana’s Glacier National Park early the next morning – and adding on an hour as we reached the USA’s Mountain Time zone – the landscape soon settled down to the flat prarieland that we would be passing through for the rest of the day. This was cattle country but the grass looked thin and parched after a hot, dry summer. After Shelby, Montana, we entered cereal-growing territory, with newly harvested wheatfields rolling away to the horizon and tall grain silos by the roadside. Stopping at Havre, there was enough time to stretch our legs on the platform and examine the statue of James J. Hill, the founder of the Empire Builder route, in front of the station. A small group of Amish dressed in 19th-century added a touch of local colour. Amish generally spurn modern technology but are nothing if not pragmatic and for long distances it seems the train is an acceptable alternative to travel by horse and cart. Leaving Havre, we reached Glasgow (Montana, that is) two and a half hours later and passed into North Dakota and the Central Time zone in the early evening. North Dakota looked very much like eastern Montana had done and the view out of the window would not really change that much until we reached the industrial cities of the Great Lakes the following morning.

An entire day spent passing through relentless treeless praries has an unsettling effect. It instills a sense of melacholia. Perhaps it is not so much its appearance but its sheer scale that affects one so: the isolated farming settlements, the unknown family dramas lived out behind closed doors; small lives in a big landscape. It is humbling to think that the pioneer settlers who ventured this way in the 19th century had little idea of what lay beyond the next mile west other than almost inevitable danger of one sort or another.

As a reminder of the early days of this great western migration we stopped at Fargo, Minnesota in the early hours, although most of us were asleep at the time. The city, originally called ‘Centralia’, later became ‘Fargo’ in honor of Northern Pacific Railway director and Wells Fargo Express Company founder William Fargo. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad here bestowed the city with the reputation as ‘Gateway to the West’.

Early next afternoon we shuffled through the endless urban sprawl of Milwaukee. Famous for its brewing industry (inspiring the song, What’s Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me), the city’s huge car parks and warehouses put me in mind of a super-sized Swindon, although to my knowledge no tragic country anthems have ever been written about the Wiltshire town. Two hours later we pulled into Chicago, just twenty minutes behind schedule. Chicago’s Union Station lies in the heart of the city’s downtown district, towered over by some of some of the tallest buildings of the world. After southeast Alaska, where tall buildings and even tall people are scarce, this was the most urban environment imaginable. Quite a stark contrast from the tranquil waters of the Inside Passage I had been sailing through just a few days earlier. There again, so was Seattle.

Blowing bubbles in the Clarence Strait

After Petersburg, a squeeze through the self-explanatory Wrangell Narrows took us south into the Clarence Strait, prime hump-backed whale territory. A group of hump-backs were soon spotted off the stern and we took skiffs out for a closer inspection. We had seen a number of them a couple of days earlier in Glacier Bay, but not like this.  Here, a group of ten or more were ‘bubble-netting’ for herring. This rare co-operative feeding behaviour involves a group of whales diving deep and producing bubbles from their blow-holes to create an underwater curtain of bubbles that traps the small fish that the whales feed on. Herrings hate bubbles and will do all they can to avoid passing through them and so what the cunning whales do is  to create a net of them that traps the disoriented fish before they rise en masse to the surface with mouths agape to scoop them up. Gulls – Bonaparte’s Gulls mostly, I think – take advantage too, grabbing those fish that manage to escape the whales’ enormous gaping jaws. In fact, it is excited gulls that tend to give away the location of the any imminent bubble net. It is a magnificent spectacle: ten 50 foot whales all hitting the surface together is an unforgettable, quite humbling sight; a phenomenon that gives new meaning to the term awe-inspiring. In less than an hour, we saw it happen four or five times

Southeast Alaska’s Clarence Strait, west of Prince of Wales Island, is one of the best locations to see this behaviour. Nevertheless, it is still very rare. Karl, our guide, reckoned that of, say, 25,000 hump-backed whales in the North Pacific maybe just 100 practised bubble-netting in groups like this. It has only ever been observed in southeast Alaska. We had just seen 10% of the world’s cetacean elite doing this very thing – a rare privilege indeed.

Petersburg

Petersburg. No, not that one – this Petersburg is in the Alaska panhandle, south of Juneau, north of Ketchikan. This is the first time in a week there has been any phone signal or internet access; the first time since leaving Juneau almost a week ago that there has been any sort of town in fact. Petersburg is named after its Norwegian founder Peter Buschmann who settled here just over a century ago to found a fish canning business. The town still has a Scandinavian character, with Norwegian-style rose-mailing prettifying its streets.

The Alaska Inner Passage cruise began in Juneau last Friday. Getting to Juneau was fun – taking 34 hours of travel time between leaving my front door in Norwich and checking in seriously jet-lagged at the hotel in Juneau. Three flights, one overnight coach journey, a long layover in Anchorage and at least of couple of hours sitting on runways awaiting permission to take off. The biggest chunk of the travel was the flight between Frankfurt to Anchorage, which instead of flying west across the Atlantic as you might expect, headed almost due north into the Arctic Circle and arced west close to the pole. It is, after all, a three dimensional world and flight routes don’t necessarily follow Mercator’s projection. Flying non-stop Frankfurt to Anchorage takes 9½ hours and because of time zone changes you arrive in Alaska thirty minutes before you left. But, if this was the secret of eternal youth then it certainly did not feel like it.

We flew over Denmark, southern Norway and then the North Sea before curving west over the northern edge of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic to hit the north Alaska coast and pass over the Denali National Park before our descent to Anchorage. Just north of Bergen, the cloud lifted to reveal the glimmering sea beneath us, with little flecks of white that I thought might be fishing boats…or whales. Is it possible to see fishing boats from 36,000 feet up? Like a living atlas unfolding, under the clear blue skies of northern Greenland it was easy to see where solid rock gave way to the pack ice of the North Pole – nothing but mountains, ridges, snow, ice and water beneath. Halfway across Alaska we flew right alongside the peak of Mount McKinley, which loomed proud above the clouds, the highest mountain in the USA, before descending over glorious golden lake country down into Anchorage. I like to think that I saw my first Alaskan bear on the final descent – it may well have just been a rock but it is perfectly feasible.

Once US immigration decided that I was respectable enough to enter their country there was a whole afternoon to kill in Anchorage. I took the local bus into town – a modest grid of low rises against an impressive mountain backdrop, with a handful of shops selling tacky souvenirs in the city centre that advertised their presence with stuffed grizzlies on the sidewalk. These were not the bears I fancied I had seen from the air. The city has something of a frontier feel about it, with small clutches of native Alaskan drunks and shifty-eyed men with baseball caps and ZZ Top beards. A surprising number of blacks and Hispanics too – but perhaps it was my use of public transport that skewed this impression. Public transport in the US tends to be mostly the preserve of the poor and disadvantaged.

Where Anchorage was fairly humdrum, Juneau was pretty and quaint, with wooden houses climbing up steep streets beneath tall bluffs. Anchorage may have been a place that shot and stuffed its bears but Juneau, with its liberal nurturing atmosphere, was a town that seemed more likely to cherish them. Juneau was wet too, pouring that first night with pounding rain that looked as if it would never stop. Thankfully, it did, and the rain was followed by four days of glorious Indian summer sunshine – ‘a bluebird summer’ as they say here.

Since embarking at Juneau last Friday I have experienced the whole gamut of classic southeast Alaska experience: walking in temperate rainforests thick with velvety moss; hikes alongside waterfalls and even on glaciers like that at Baird Glacier yesterday afternoon. There have been hot springs and bald eagles; sea lions, countless orcas and hump-backed whales – one even appeared blowing a steamy plume whilst we were out paddling kayaks. There have been bears too – some black but mostly brown – and a couple of close (but not too close) encounters at forest streams and on beaches where they greedily snatch up migrating salmon from the mouths as streams as easily and as casually as if they were picking flowers.