Riding on a train has a certain romance – one that has me taking a lot of pictures in black and white. I feel under-dressed in my comfy leggings and hoodie. Perhaps I should be playing cards or reading a book…not using my laptop. Given how cheap it is to fly most places and how long the trains take, it’s surprising passenger trains are still in business. Although apparently Amtrak relies heavily on government support and doesn’t have priority on the line – that honour goes to freight trains.
Trains are a dying mode of transport. I love travelling by rail, but it isn’t always an easy decision to do so. When I began looking into my options for getting to San Francisco – a city that has long enticed me – the train, as usual, was on the agenda. Vancouver to San Fran would be a 16-hour drive. But by train it takes 24 hours, and that’s from Seattle so add a 5.30am departing bus to Seattle on top of the train trip.
I had great dreams of spending the next 24 hours glued to my window, stretched out in my reclining seat and taking lots of photos. However that was a little derailed (couldn’t help myself) when I found myself in an aisle seat next to a woman who didn’t speak English so I couldn’t even beg her to swap. So instead I grabbed my bags and headed for the observation car. Since 10am I have been parked at a little group of three seats, which allow me to stretch out comfortably. Throughout the day I have subtly spread out my belongings to stake my claim and come bed time, they will be all mine to enjoy actual horizontal sleep – a bonus considering I refused to pay extra for a sleeper.
Even just a few hours across the border, things already had an “American” feel. One giveaway was the number of American flags on houses, car dealerships, swimming centres. The houses also started to look different – well not to each other, just from what I’m used to. It seems that one community adopts a particular design and off they go. The only modifications are the colour of the weatherboards, the placement of the American flag and the number of cars in the backyard. I haven’t heard terrible things about the economy but there were a few signs things still aren’t great. One subdivision had the road, street lights and a playground, but not a house in sight.
The train followed the water for the first few hours before turning inland. The countryside reminded me of the movie Twister. The land was flat and seemed to go on forever, with the occasional long, straight road cutting through the picture. There were horses, donkeys, trucks (utes) and barns – yes the American style. I even saw a red one but wasn’t quick enough to get a picture. The weather was as varied as the landscape. One minute I’m basking in the sunshine, the next I’m disturbed by rain pounding on the overhead windows, and then we’re speeding through a snowstorm.
For lunch I decided to head to the dining car, if anything just to break up the journey. Amtrak practises “community seating” so if your party is three or less, you’ll be seated with others to fill up a table of four. I ate lunch with Brad, who was heading to Albany to see his grandmother. Over a salad and chicken tortilla soup, Brad gave me some good tips for San Francisco. Then it was back to my seat (saved with my backpack, jacket and water bottle) to continue staring out the window.
I spent a good few hours doing this, and chatting to another passenger whose name I didn’t catch. He’s a Californian local who moved up to Lincoln City in Oregon for work. Apparently a lot of people are moving to California, which is making the job market competitive. He’s Native American so was taken in by a local tribe in Lincoln City and has found work easily, but is heading back because his uncle is sick. He’s concerned his uncle might not be alive by the time he gets there and also because he might have to cut his hair. In his culture it is custom to cut ones hair after a death in the family and he only just had to do that. His hair used to come nearly all the way down his back but it’s now shoulder length.
The landscape became a bit repetitive after a while and the clouds took the sun before the night could – robbing me of what I imagine would have been a stunning sunset. As the dark came we travelled up into the mountains and when I looked past my reflection in the window, I could see a blanket of snow on the ground and the shadowy outline of tree tops in the higher window of the carriage.
At 7.15pm I am called to the dining car for dinner. Well not me personally but my reservation was for 7.15 and now it’s my turn to eat. In community seating tradition I am seated with three strangers. It was a dinner that could a scene straight from an Agatha Christie book. Once again nobody shared names so I’ll just make them up. Margaret (retired, from Fresno, CA) is travelling with her nephew Tommy. They’ve been in Seattle and now heading home. But Margaret hates to fly so Tommy is keeping her company on the trip. It’s his first time on the Coast Starlight. There is me. The young Australian girl, living in a foreign country and off to a big city by herself. And lastly we have Greg – an LA local who’s been visiting the Tri Cities. He’s so vague about his plans that Margaret asks him all the same questions again. He then says he’s on the train because he doesn’t like airport security. And that he has a lot of luggage with him. It was a great setting for a mystery novel. The old lady, her rather camp nephew, the young female traveller, and the stranger who’s mysterious about his plans. Oh and our server was Donald. Real name. Fits in so well don’t you think?
Nobody got murdered over dinner. There was no time. We were too busy talking about everything from Nicole Kidman to Kindles. Suddenly it’s nearly 9pm and time to leave the dining car and its red carnations.