18 August 2008

A slower pace of travel

We arrived in Chicago a few hours ago after a two-day trip from Seattle on Amtrak's Empire Builder, train number 8, which crossed Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Lyn Blyden - president of the JGS of Washington State - and I left Seattle at 4.30pm Wednesday and arrived here Friday around 5pm, just about an hour late. Here are some notes written on this kicked-back mode of transportation.

We enjoyed this voluntary email vacation - she's trying to finish "Lost" by Daniel Mendelsohn up in the observation lounge, while I have a stack of computer magazines.

We've shared dining room tables with interesting fellow travelers and discussing each others' reasons for taking the train to our destinations. As we mention we're on our way to a genealogy conference, most chime in with their own or relatives' experiences. Genealogy is always a great ice breaker!

We learned about how apples are stored from a Yakima couple who were a bit disparaging of Wenatchee, which calls itself the apple capital of the world, as we went through the town.

We enjoyed two meals with a couple who used to teach at the American school in the Philippines and now were going to the North Dakota wedding of a grandson of friends they've known for 40 years.

We had breakfast with a woman who weaves and her young nephew, a 4-H-er and learned interesting facts about the Nubian goats he raises for milk and exhibits at state fairs.

We learned that the only two lower-48 states that Amtrak doesn't cover are South Dakota and another one I promptly forgot. If we'd known that before the trip, we could have won a bottle of wine. We also learned that very few people can recite the names of all seven dwarves from Sleeping Beauty. Can you? Hint: The seventh one is not Irving!

A lot of Upper Midwest phrases pepper the conversations we hear, such as "You betcha!" that I've only heard on television programs and films like "Fargo," which was one of our stops.

While I knew I wouldn't have email - Amtrak has not yet caught up with the 21st century - I hadn't realized that the open expanses of Montana's Big Sky Country and North Dakota would also produce "no service available" or "emergency calls only" screens on my newish cell phone. Somehow the lack of cell service was more disturbing than lack of internet. We have grown so dependent on instant electronic communication, some might say too dependent.

There were about 10 minutes of rain, followed by a magnificent rainbow, which was worth the entire trip. We tried to watch for the Perseid meteor showers the first night out, and think we saw two, but the swaying motion of the train put us to sleep.

At every stop with a few minutes' wait, passengers ran out on platforms trying to communicate on iPhones, BlackBerrys and ordinary old cells - no one had service but it was fun watching them try - shaking their phones and wondering what was wrong, finding it hard to believe that there really was a place in America with NO cell tower.

So now - along with the open fields, corn fields, far-away herds of cattle and horses, bales of hay, clouds so close you can touch them - I'm also dreading the hundreds of emails I'll find when we get to Chicago. I finally got some cell service as we approached Milwaukee and connected with some people.

It was a great trip through beautiful countryside and natural scenery, from open fields to ancient forests, reminiscent of "Jurassic Park." Mountains, rivers, skirting some national parks - all were part of this ride.

It's good to kickback once in a while.

Amazingly, although we had been out of touch with the world for almost two days, the world was still there and nothing much had happened, except for a lot of medals won at the Olympics.

Hilary Henkin (formerly of Atlanta, now Los Angeles) is our third roomie at the conference and she's bringing along a special device that should work in the room, so all of us can be online and wireless at the same time.

I'm hoping to meet some Talalay relatives in Chicago on Saturday afternoon. This will be a first-ever reunion with this particular branch with origins in Novgorod Severskiy, Chernigov gubernia (and Mogilev, Belarus before). I have previously met Arkadiy's daughter Rina and her family who used to live in Israel and now in New Jersey, and Zhanna's son and his family in Israel.

On Saturday morning, some of us are going to services at Rabbi Caper Funnye's the Ethiopian Beth Shalom southside synagogue. In the evening, a group of DNA people are getting together to see Second City, for a Sunday city boat ride, and a Monday night dinner. It should be fun.

The remainder of the week will be non-stop conference activities from early morning to late at night.

After registering and unpacking, we went for dinner and ran into Judy Simon, who had just arrived from New York. As we walked into the Italian restaurant across from the hotel, we saw Catherine Youngren, president of the Jewish Genealogical Institute (Vancouver BC Canada), and she joined our table. We had a far-ranging discussion and went over our respective years. One of the nicest things about these conferences is meeting friends from all over and re-connecting.

Jeff Malka, a pioneer Sephardic researcher - who also has the www. SephardicGen.com site, asked Judy and I to help out during the Sephardic Special Interest Group meeting. Judy is presenting a fascinating talk for the Sephardic SIG meeting from 9.45-11am on Tuesday, focused on the IberianAshkenaz Project, which Judy and I co-administer at Family Tree DNA. It is for Eastern European Ashkenazim who carry Sephardic surnames, or a Sephardic genetic condition, or have a strong oral history of Sephardic roots. I'll be relating some other information.

Every day more people join; about two-thirds of these ostensible Ashkenazim are genetic matches with Converso/Hispanic families in the US or elsewhere. We've had some very interesting matches recently and participants have upgraded tests to get a better handle on their most recent common ancestors.

We are always happy to help Jeff and to convey more Sephardic research information.

The importance of the IberianAshkenaz project is to encourage researchers to record family stories, no matter how strange or silly they seem, and to attempt to find the kernel of truth, illustrated by genetic matches.

It also points up that we don't always know who we really are, how we got here (wherever "here" is) , or where we've been for centuries. And it underlines the bottom line that researchers should always be prepared for what testing might discover or uncover.

I'll be posting as much as possible about the different sessions I attend over this coming week.

And, if you weren't able to make it to Chicago this year, enjoy Tracing the Tribe's postings and remember that 2009 will be in Philadelphia, from August 2-7. Think ahead and plan for that one as soon as the announcements are made.


  1. Hi Schelly,

    I'm glad you enjoyed your train trip - I love these travelogues that folks have been posting on their blogs.

    Cheers - Randy

  2. Glad you both arrived safely. Some wild weather here in Seattle. Lightning and thunder the likes of which I've never seen before, and I lived in Tornado alley.

    Can't wait to hear all about the conference.


  3. It is nice to slow down once in a while and "recharge" the body as well as the spirit. It sure sounds like you had a relaxing and enjoyable train ride. I'm looking forward to your posts about the conference.

  4. Irving - haha!

    A very enjoyable post.

  5. Anonymous2:34 PM

    Hi Schelly:
    Hope to see you on Thursday....one day at the conference is better than none. We are making progress on planning DC2011 - in Washington, DC, of course.
    Hugs, Marlene