Thoughts on the train.
Lillian and I traveled from just north of Los Angeles to Seattle on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. One of their most scenic routes, the trip takes you up from Southern California along the Pacific Ocean, into the Salinas Valley, and up the Central Coast. From there, the train makes a brief stop at Jack London Square in downtown Oakland as you continue through to Sacramento. After hours of some of the richest farmland anywhere, you see Mount Shasta and the Southern portion of the Cascade Mountain Range. From Chemult, Oregon, you head Northwest, through Eugene, Portland, and then to Seattle.
The journey takes thirty-one, two, or more hours, depending on freight traffic. The freight train companies own the tracks, set the schedules, and have priority over us leisure seekers. Contrary to what we were told, we experienced little to no delays on either our northbound or southbound rides. Because the tracks are devoted primarily for the movement of freight, the ride could be smoother. I found the gentle turbulence more hypnotic than bothersome.
The ride can go from comfortable to stately based on how much money you’re willing to pay. You could buy a couch ticket and have a seat far bigger than any airline. Or you can opt for a private room. While the seats looked comfortable, I’m thankful to have the means to afford a bit of an upgrade.
Lillian and I chose to secure a private room. While most of these rooms are called a “roomette,” The private “room” has its own shower and commode. Having sampled a roomette a few months earlier on a shorter trip, sharing a bathroom with strangers would have been a deal breaker for Lillian. The roomette is barely the size of a small closet, with two facing seats that turn into the lower bunk at night.
To access the upper bunk of the roomette, with no room to maneuver, you’ll need to stand in the hall and obtain the assistance of three fellow passengers and your car attendant. They must place their hands squarely on your buttocks and lift you as if you were a newborn or the second coming. Explaining the process of getting out of the upper bunk is better left to your imagination. There is a safety knife in case you become entangled in the straps that ensure you don’t bounce out of bed due to the commotion of a passing freight train.
Securing a private room also means your meals are complimentary. The train contains two dining cars, complete with white tablecloths, real silverware, and pleasant and accommodating staff. The menu selections are adequate for a few days but haven’t changed in years. Before each meal, an attendant secures you a seating time. Seating times ensure everyone gets a table.
Another feature of dining on a train is the concept of your new best friend. Unless you are a party of four, expect to be seated with a few of your fellow passengers. Making small talk with strangers has never been my strength. In today’s overcharged, media-hyped environment, coupled with our ignorant and self-absorbed lifestyles, I find casual chit-chat a bit beyond my reach.
In my mind, I skip the usual introductions of name, destination, and hometown. I think about the hanger steak I ordered for the tenth time. I want to get to it. I size up my traveling adversaries, and I take their measure. Another older couple – probably just some liberal coastal elites who undoubtedly took the train to reduce their carbon footprint. What’s this? I suspected it as much. At the end of their journey, a Tesla awaits to whisk them off to their sixteen-thousand-square-foot mansion with nine bathrooms and two heated pools.
Suddenly, a train loaded with coal passes in the opposite direction. The fuel of America reduced to a mile and a half long of hypocrisy spoiling my coconut shrimp and our pleasant, caring but do-nothing banter.
I’m bored. Where the hell is my steak? I stare out the window, avoiding eye contact. Finally, I blurt out – “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I can’t wait for Donald Trump to become President again.”
Of course, I actually say nothing. My salmon arrives. Our conversation drifts from the scenery outside to the tropical storm drenching Southern California.
“You should have ordered the impossible meatloaf.”
Next time, I’ll try it. Knowing there won’t be a next time.
Lillian and I enjoyed meeting our fellow travelers, whether older couples or single adventurers. Cindy, one such traveler we shared a meal with, was a young gal in her mid-thirties. She was French, lived in London, and had just completed hiking 1400 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Confessing to only averaging twenty-five miles a day, she didn’t make it as far as she had hoped. I told her that hiking from the bottom of California to the top and onto Crater Lake was an astonishing accomplishment. She talked about why she preferred living in London over Paris and how her employer would hold her job until she returned after six months. She spoke of meeting people along the trail who showed incredible kindness, sharing their food or leaving snacks and sodas along the way. Her adopted trail name was Rainbow.
Usually, polite banter during a meal with strangers dictates a particular back and forth, a sharing of personal information. Lillian and I’ve learned to share just enough to be personable while holding back details in case we need to make a hasty exit. When you meet a young person named Rainbow, it’s best just to listen.
Sharing a meal with strangers is something we’re not used to, but I found it part of the unique experience of traveling by train.
The observation car is the highlight of the Coast Starlight. Here, fifty-nine passengers enjoy incredible scenery from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascades. I made a point to count the chairs. There are six tables which accommodate four people each. Chairs grouped into clumps of three offer riders a unique vantage point. Each seat offers a magnificent view. Because our trip was during the height of Amtrak’s travel season, the car overflowed with passengers. As most people travel in groups of one, two, or four, a seating arrangement of three looked somewhat odd. As we sat transfixed by the view, our conversation took on a familiar cadence. “Mind if I sit down? No, not at all. First time on the train? “Yes, in America, but I’ve traveled all over Europe by rail.”
During our two thirty-plus hour journeys, I thought I’d read a book, watch a movie, or sleep. Instead, I found myself enjoying the company of strangers, sharing a meal with my new best friends, or just staring out the window and marveling at our wonderfully magnificent country. For me, train travel is a way to rest your brain.
“So, Gary, will you be signing up for the California Zephyr from Sacramento to Chicago and then on to the East Coast?”
“Oh, hell no. But I did buy the airline tickets offering five more inches of legroom.”