Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tales, rails, and ales.

The Cascade Mountains as seen from the train.

I apologize for the delay in reviews, dear readers. I have just returned from a delightful two-week excursion to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia via train. Trains are the perfect means of travel if one enjoys reading while traveling.

For this trip I chose to delve into dark fiction. Going with the train theme, I felt Stefan Grabinski's book, The Motion Demon (trans. Miroslaw Lipinski), was an appropriate choice. The Motion Demon is a collection of weird tales with one common theme: trains. Stefan Grabinski (1887-1936) is considered the "Edgar Allan Poe" of Poland. His tales are highly atmospheric and filled with dread. This book truly enhanced my travel experience.

Grabinski on trains:
"Now the world was plunged in dense darkness. Stains of light fell from the car windows, whose yellow eyes skimmed the embankment slopes. In front of him, at a distance of five cars, the engine sowed blood-red cascades of sparks, the chimney breathed out white-rose smoke. The black twenty-joined serpent glittered along its scaly sides, belched fire through its mouth, lit up the road with encompassing eyes. In the distance, the glow of a station was already visible."  
"The Sloven" -- Stefan Grabinski

First stop: Seattle, WA

Seattle is a wonderful and lively city. It has a distinct identity that makes it stand out among other American cities. It had been about 13 years since I had last visited Seattle, and I was surprised to see the amount of cranes in the air, and not of the feathered variety. There is an incredible amount of construction going on to meet the demands of a quickly growing city.

While in the city I met up with an old friend. She said Seattle is the fastest growing city in the United States. Later she and her husband gave me their "grand tour" of the city's more off-beat and unusual sites the city had to offer, like the Troll Under the Bridge and Gasworks Park. I would have liked to have spent more time in Seattle, but I needed to be on my way to my next destination.

The enormous "Troll Under the Bridge".

Second stop: Vancouver, BC

Downtown Vancouver is very unique. It is remarkably clean for a city of its size and very walkable. What impressed me the most was how quiet it is. Typically cities of this size (a bit over half a million people) produce a cacophony of noise: cab horns, loud stereos, and the low hum of industry. Vancouver had virtually none of these annoyances. Additionally, city has done a great job preserving its past. The best example of this is Gastown. Gastown is the oldest part of the city and is now a historic district of Vancouver. Walking around Gastown is like a trip back to the late 19th century, especially when done by night. One of district's most unique features is a large steam clock. Unfortunately the steam clock was undergoing repair while I was there. The district is filled with unique shops, restaurants, and art galleries.

Steam clock in Gastown. Image credit

The Lamplighter Pub. Corner of Abbott and Water Sts. Gastown.

While in the area I had to stop by MacLeod's Books at 455 W. Pender St.. MacLeod's is a marvelous used bookstore and the best Vancouver has to offer. The first impression one gets when entering MacLeod's Books is that it looks like the cramped warren of a book hoarder (and I know more than a few). Stacks of books are piled high everywhere. This is no neat and organized Barnes & Noble. No, it is an organized chaos and a delight for book lovers who enjoy rummaging around for hidden treasures, and those who enjoy hunting for books just as much as reading them. MacLeod's is absolute nirvana for bibliophiles.

MacLeod's books. Image credit

After a few hours of scanning shelves I asked one of the gentlemen behind the counter if he could direct me to where they housed their stock of rare and unusual books. He asked what subject matter I was looking to which I replied, "Folklore, Demonolgy, Witchcraft -- that sort of thing." "Hold on one moment", he replied. He returned with another gentleman who had been informed of my query. He gave me a knowing wink and said, "Follow me". 

I had expected to be escorted to a back room, or perhaps basement storage area. Instead, I followed the man outside and across the street. We walked about a block or so and stopped at a nondescript door with no signage whatsoever. He unlocked the door, turned on the lights, and motioned for me to come in, locking the door behind me. Much like the main store location, this room was filled with stacks and piles of books, some stacked over 6 feet high. I followed him to where he had stopped at one side of the room. He pointed to the shelves and said, "I think you'll find some interesting texts in here. Take whatever time you need." Then he disappeared into the rear of the building. 

He was absolutely correct. There were a number of interesting texts. Fortunately, their occult collection was filed neatly inside a few bookcases rather than haphazardly piled around. It was an impressive collection: 18th century alchemical texts, older editions of Crowley, and quite a number late 19th century books on Spiritualism. Moreover, there were a few very interesting titles by Harry Price dating back to the early days of psychical research. They also had a copy of a particular book I've been seeking out for quite some time dating to the 1850s. Alas, their copy was in rather poor condition, so I had to let that one pass.

Piles of books and narrow walkways at MacLeod's

Third stop: Victoria, BC

Next I took the ferry over to Victoria, a truly beautiful city by the sea. My time there was a bit rushed and so, regrettably, I was unable to explore Victoria's three top bookstores: Russell Books, Bolan Books, and the stately Munro's Books. I found it surprising that palm trees can grow in Victoria, even at a latitude as far north as 48.4 degrees.

Victoria's Romanesque Revival Parliament Building

I was fortunate enough to catch the last day of the Viking exhibit at the Royal BC Museum. They had an astonishing number of relics on display (on loan from Sweden), including one of the very rare Ulfberht (+VLFBERHT+) Viking swords.

I made sure I had time to explore Craigdarroch Castle while in Victoria. Carved into the wooden fireplace mantle in the castle's library are the words, "Reading Maketh a Full Man". I couldn't agree more.

Craigdarroch Castle

Later that afternoon I visited the Empress Hotel for high tea. The Empress Hotel, built in 1908, is a stunning example of Victorian extravagance.  Ornate woodwork, stained glass, and marble abound throughout the hotel.

The Empress Hotel. Victoria, BC.

One of my favorite parts of the Empress hotel is the exotic Bengal Lounge. The Bengal Lounge is laid out in 19th century safari decor -- one of those places where one would imagine encountering a gentleman with a monocle and waxed mustache reminiscing on about how dreadfully hot it was in Sri Lanka in-between puffs of aromatic Black Cavendish smoke drawn from a meerschaum pipe.

Bengal Lounge. Image credit Victoriaspirits,com

Fourth stop: Port Townsend, WA and the Olympic Peninsula

Yet another ferry. This time to Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic Peninsula is a very special place. I was able to explore its temperate rain forests, trek some of its mountains, discover secluded beaches, and marvel at its vast pine forests.

View of the Pacific coastline at dusk.

Light creeping into the Olympic Peninsula's temperate rain forest.
View from atop Mt. Angeles.

I decided to spend a day and night in Port Townsend on the peninsula's northeast coast. Port Townsend's Historic District is a time capsule capturing what life was like for this maritime community a century ago. Today it is full of quaint shops, restaurants; and fortunately for me, bookstores. The best one was William James Bookseller. It had an impressive selection for a store of modest size, including display cases full of first editions and a large selection catered to local interests and Northwest history books. Another was a New Age bookstore called Phoenix Rising. Aside from Tibetan singing bowls, crystals, and incense they had a respectable amount of new and in-print esoteric books.

One of my favorite places in Port Townsend is a local taproom called The Pourhouse, a favorite watering hole for locals apparently. Initially I had a difficult time finding it. It's very well hidden. I walked right past its door twice before I figured out where it was. It has an incredible number of craft-beers available both on tap or by the bottle. The Pourhouse's seating area opens up right to the beach, an extremely picturesque spot. It's also very dog friendly. I counted at least six large dog lounging around the establishment. One of my favorite beers was a sour red ale (served in a brandy snifter) called Flanders Red from Destihl Brewing (6.1% ABV). It has a heady and fruity aroma and packs a sour punch -- a real delight. Also on tap was a rhubarb cider that was equally amazing. It was a good thing I did not drive there.

The Pourhouse taproom.

Fifth stop: Portland, OR

My stay in Portland was very brief yet very enjoyable. I had one main destination: Powell's Bookstore. Powell's is the largest bookstore in the world. It takes up an entire city block in downtown Portland. The bookstore occupies several floors and has 1.6 acres of retail space. Unbelievable. It truly has to be seen to be believed. It is open every day from 9 a.m. - 11 p.m. The place is so big that the staff at Powell's hand customers maps of the store upon entering.

I killed a whole afternoon at Powell's. One of the more interesting sections of the store is their Rare Books room. The rare books are kept in a separate climate-controlled room. They had a moderately impressive selection, but not as impressive as MacLeod's rare books. I suspect their stock turns over fairly quickly. I picked up a number of books, nothing too exotic. One of the more unusual of these was a peculiar book on scarecrow lore, The Scarecrow: Fact and Fable by Peter Haining.

It deserves mention that while I was there Chuck Palahniuk of Fight Club fame was there for a book signing.

For anyone traveling to Portland, Powell's Books is a must-see.

Powell's City of Books. Image credit: JParadisi.

Sixth stop: Back to Seattle

After brief forays around Olympia, WA and Tacoma, WA it was time to head back to Seattle to catch the long (but relaxing) train ride home. I must add that the people I met throughout my journey were extremely polite and pleasant (far more polite than my home city's inhabitants). People in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia are very charming, laid back, and welcoming people. I already look forward to a return trip.

B. Balkan

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