In an effort to fight the stereotype that train service in the US is awful, I have decided to embark on a 35+ hour scenic jaunt down to Los Angeles from Seattle on the Amtrak Coastal Starlight. It is 9:38am. The train is scheduled to leave at 9:45am. I’m already drinking my first coffee. There’s a thermos upstairs from which one can presumably take multiple refills. I have met the sleeper car attendant, whose name is Sokhavy. She said, “Do you have any questions?” and I precoeeded to batter her with questions for the next five minutes, though my thirst for Amtrak knowledge, and this route in general, was not even close to satiated. Apparently the observation car — with glass ceilings — is a good place to make friends. I shall go there soon.
My sleeping berth is slightly more spacious than I thought. It’s also laid out differently. I thought you would open a door to a narrow corridor flanked by a bed and culminating in a window. But instead it’s more like the first class you see on airplanes. Two seats facing each other that fold into a bed. Unlimited coffee. Have I mentioned this? But Jesus, what am I going to do for 35 hours. Sokhavy has just informed me there’s no wifi. I have an uplifting book about Afghanistan, the CIA, and the leadup to 9/11.
I better make friends.
As things currently stand were hauling ass. I have no idea how this takes 35+ hours. We must make some long stops. And also go slow through the mountains.
Halftime of the Ajax Chelsea game has coincided nicely with sweeping views of south Puget Sound. I’ve made my way to the lounge car where two couples from the south are gabbing excitedly about the views. One woman is Facetiming and the audio is, well, audible. Her southern accent is like honey that has fermented to my northern ears.
The passenger across from me is named Shay and will apparently be boarding at PDX. Will Shay and I be besties? Also, lunch is scheduled for 1:00pm and dinner for 7:30pm. I wanted a later dinner time. I imagine dining alone at night, the countryside racing by. I imagine most of these people are just taking this train to Portland. Maybe some to the Bay Area. Even fewer to LA. I would like to become friends with Sakhovy, the sleeping car train attendant. She’s been working for Amtrak for 15 years.
Practical notes: the bathrooms are more than serviceable. The existence of the lounge car with its floor to ceiling windows is welcome. I’m in a sleeper on the first floor which smells more than faintly of disinfectant. But apparently the first floor is actually kind of nice because there’s much less traffic. All foot transit takes place on the second floor. The first floor is a bastion of tranquility. We’re nearing the place where an Amtrak train derailed last year. We’re also nearing the very tip of south Puget Sound.
The best part of taking the train so far: you’re not going along the highway so you’re seeing parts of the country you’d never otherwise see.
First impressions: Everything is better so far than I expected. The scenery is gorgeous. We might actually roll into LA more or less on schedule. The food sounds pretty good. I love having my own little compartment.
So far this could compete with many European train services. It’s a gorgeous fall day and the track is lined with deciduous trees shedding their leaves and preparing to hunker down for winter.
There are people playing dominos in the lounge car. I’m drinking orange juice. Portland was beautiful. A sea of fall leaves and people walking around as if Portland were the only city on earth. I took a power walk and made it as far as the Whole Foods and Powell’s Books in the Pearl District. My knowledge of Portland is poor and my desire to increase it poorer. I will never live south of Seattle again unless it’s Mexico or Chile or Italy or maybe (maybe) New Zealand.
I would estimate our top speed so far around 70mph. Possibly 80mph. Not bad but a far cry from the gazelles that zip across the European or Asian countrysides. Apparently long haul train travel in the US is on its way out. Could the Coast Starlight be the end of an era? Will everyone by driving self driven electric cars in 10 years, even more glued to their phones than they are now?
Lunch was a lively affair consisting of an Angus burger and sitting with a couple from North Carolina and a German masqaurading as an Englishman. If you’re traveling alone on Amtrak you will probably sit with strangers for meals. It was nice to have a bit of social interaction. The German guy was happy with the train, especially the scenery and the amenities despite it being “obviously an old train.” I noticed he tipped well despite coming from two countries not known for tipping. As for dinner I’m already excited. My reservation, as I mentioned, is for 7:30pm. I’m hoping to get the Land & Sea Combo accompanied by a garden salad. It retails for $39 and has a steak and a crab cake. Will they allow me such decadence? Meals are included with the sleepers but I’m not sure if all the meals are. Suburban Portland is a prison of convenience stores and overly temperate weather. I’m thinking about having another coffee. The girl across the hall finally showed up but doesn’t seem particularly keen on making friends. It might be time to meditate or even take a nap. We’re crossing rivers and going by lakes and the sun feels like it’s already setting. It’s a beautiful day.
I can now officially say I’ve made a friend on the train. Her name is Katrin and she’s wonderful. She’s from Germany, Chemnitz to be exact, which is near Dresden. In the past few months I’ve met three people from Dresden. What is the universe trying to tell me? I’m not sure, but I’m listening. The universe is speaking to me in German.
I’m in my sleeper now preparing for bed. We’re winding through the mountains toward Mt. Shasta, aka Dunsmuir, aka Redding. Aka the Bay Area. Aka were in California and still have approximately 24 hours to go. How is this possible. How is this state so massive or this train so slow or both. I’m already looking forward to hopefully breakfasting with Katrin tomorrow and talking about the Camino de Santiago and spiritual shit. She told me she’s reading a book by Osho. I told her I fall asleep to Eckhart Tolle videos. The thing about Amtrak is they make you eat meals with other people, so you have to meet people. It’s like a forced blind date with someone regardless of gender or age. I had dinner with a woman in her 70’s from Klamath Falls. We talked at length about healthcare. I shoveled down rolls and strained to hear the conversation of the (different) German girl next to me who appeared to be taking about Kombucha. And then when I got back to the sleep car Sokhavy, bless her beating heart, said, “I’m gonna go downstairs and make up your bed.” Am I in paradise? Is Amtrak actually the future?
(to be continued…)