Does Amtrak use Central Casting to hire its conductors? Probably not, but it seemed so when the man with the neatly trimmed white mustache and commanding manner arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station and announced to us how to queue up to board the train. He made the railroad proud.
The last time I had been in King Street Station, the place was a mess, with temporary plywood walls and hardly a hint of the grandeur of the original station, which served the Great Northern and Northern Pacific passenger trains through much of the last century. Alas, the station had been modernized and lobotomized numerous times through the years, and had lost its personality. The city of Seattle bought the station a few years ago for the princely sum of $10, and agreed to renovate it at a cost of millions. Now the station’s interior is restored to much of its original glory, with plaster ceiling rosettes and marble floors and walls galore, along with the tradtional long wooden benches. Our voices echoed in the empty cavern. Earthquake cracks snaked along the marble floors–a result of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake that shook Puget Sound at a 6.8 quake level.
We had arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station early on Sunday morning, after a beautiful late summer ferry run across Puget Sound, followed by a quick yellow taxi ride to the station. We were early because the ferry and train schedules don’t quite match, but that was all right, since it gave me a chance to photograph the station without the clutter of the passengers it was built for.
Our destination on this trip was Fresno, California, where we planned to pick up a new camping vehicle to drive back to Washington. We could have flown and been there faster, but we wanted to take a bit more gear than would have been easy on a plane, and the train ride sounded like it would be more relaxing, since there is absolutely nothing relaxing or pleasant about the airport and airplane experience any more unless you can go in the airline club and get tanked prior to your first class flight.
Besides, I love trains. I’ve loved trains since I was three years old, and found an American Flyer train with a 4-6-4 Hudson locomotive circling the Christmas tree in my family’s Detroit living room. My longest train ride was a trip to New Mexico circa 1964, when I went with a group of Boy Scouts to Philmont Scout Ranch for a great backpacking trip. In addition to seeing a UFO out the window while crossing the New Mexico desert, I remember flushing the toilet on the train and seeing it directly open to the railroad ties whizzing by below.
Later, I developed a love for the train songs that were popular in early folk and country music. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” was influential enough in my life that I would have enjoyed becoming a Canadian if the opportunity arose. It didn’t. Then there was Linda Ronstadt’s exquisite version of “2:10 Train,” which showed her powerful vocal talents on one of her early efforts. And The Grateful Dead singing of “Casey Jones” meeting his fate, as in “Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed … trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.” Music these days isn’t focused as much on planes, trains, and automobiles as it was when I was coming of age, and I miss hearing new train songs.
Soon enough Karen and I boarded the Coast Starlight for our overnight journey from Seattle to Fresno, California. Fortunately we got to sit next to each other on the nearly full train, though I hogged the window seat so that I could photograph the passing scene. There are big windows and plenty of legroom on these big seats, which is almost enough to make me never want to fly again. I could actually work on my computer without the fear that the person in front of me would suddenly recline their seat and shatter my screen.
There were passengers of all sorts: a few railfans, but mostly people who just wanted to get from here to there easily and inexpensively. From the start of the journey, there was a quiet murmer of conversation and the pleasant white noise of the hissing air conditioning system. The announcer came on the loudspeaker and asked people not to talk on their cell phones from their seats, but to instead take their cell conversations to a different part of the train car. But the young guy next to us didn’t hear the announcement, because he was already into a series of hours-long cell phone conversations that were so profoundly boring that I still feel like my useful life was shortened by being near him.
Alas, that is the common result of sharing a limited space with strangers for hours on end. It often works out well; sometimes not. Fortunately the passing scene outside kept us occupied, and Karen knitted a blue baby sweater for hours on end.
Passing by Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, with its striking, cone-shaped hot shop, which celebrates the roles of Tacoma and artist Dale Chihuly in creating beautiful art glass. Note the Airstream trailer, which goes nicely with the stainless steel architecture of the museum.
We watched the passing scene as we wound through Tacoma and along Puget Sound. A group of scuba divers in drysuits and masks prepared to enter the Sound. Rotting piers and multi-million dollar condo developments flashed by. Occasionally a silver and red Santa Fe locomotive sat on a siding. This was a remnant of the the railroad business prior to to the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroads. Now Warren Buffett’s company owns the whole BNSF system so we’ll blame him for any delays on this trip.
We passed right under the Tacoma Narrows Bridges. For those who remember their high school science classes, this is the location of the Galloping Gertie bridge that developed dramatic waves in a 40 mph wind soon after it was built in 1940. The waves were filmed and, at least in my fuzzy memories, the film showed cars being tossed from the bridge. It soon collapsed, and the pieces now create an artificial reef on the bottom of this stretch of Puget Sound.
After a while, we decided to wander the train, exploring the aisles and determining where we could eat when we got hungry. Three cars toward the locomotive, there was an observation Sightseer Lounge Car with windows that wrap over the top of the car where volunteer interpreters from Seattle’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park told engaging stories about the passing scene. My favorite story was about the guy who so enjoyed watching the trains go by from his driveway that he stipulated that he be buried under his gravel drive; it was fun seeing the wide green spot in his driveway that covers his grave, and waving to his friendly ghost.
As we approached Portland, we bought lunch from the snack bar tucked away below the lounge. The coffee here was good; the microwave meals, not so much. As Karen said, it should be considered “filler” rather than food. Her plastic-enclosed Caesar salad was marginally better than my microwaved cheese pizza., but neither would win the mass transit cuisine competition. Amtrak, can we talk? Are you listening? Can’t you make these snack bars a little bit better with some truly edible food? Please?
Meanwhile, the interpreters pointed out all the houseboats around the islands as we approached Portland. They said that the original impetus for houseboats here was that people thought they could avoid property taxes by living on water instead of land. The government quashed that notion pretty quick with a different kind of tax, but people came to like the romance of rocking gently on the water as they drifted off to sleep.
Actually, speaking of taxes, this border with Oregon has long been a hotbed for tax avoiders. There are a lot of people who live on the Washington State side of the mighty Columbia River because Washington doesn’t have an income tax. Then, they do their major shopping on the Oregon side, because Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax. It’s a pretty good racket, though they generally get caught if they buy a car in Oregon and try registering it there.
We pulled into the classic Portland Union Station, where smokers were told they could take a “fresh air break.” We coughed as we passed through all that fresh air, then entered the busy station, which was filled with so many people that it seemed like we had stepped back 60 years, though the cell phones and casual clothing were decidedly current. After a few minutes photographing the soaring station interior, and wondering why today’s public spaces are so uninspiring in comparison, we bought ice cream bars to savor during the walk back to our train car.
The train filled up again for the run south through the Willamette Valley, through Albany and Salem and Eugene and all the flat country of this vast agricultural valley. When pioneers on the Oregon Trail finished their long journey in covered wagons pulled by oxen, this valley was their promised land. Its rich soil had been deposited during huge glacial floods that scoured eastern Washington and filled the Willamette Valley. Now there are vast vineyards to supply the wineries, tree and shrub nurseries, fields of peppermint to delight the nose, and orchards of hazelnut trees. During our ride through the valley many of the fields were brown after late summer harvests; had we come through in March, after the winter rains, the entire valley would have been a dazzling green.
The afternoon passed pleasantly, and eventually we began to climb out of the valley and into the mountains of southern Oregon. We chose to have dinner in the dining car, where we were seated with two pleasant ladies heading home to Red Bluff, California after a Seattle wedding. They immediately refused the dinner rolls, saying they were on a gluten-free diet, along with tens of millions of other Americans. There were several entrees available; one of the ladies chose an Amtrak Signature Steak, which was a rare treat … actually, extremely rare, to the point of still mooing. She sent it back for some fresh searing. Meanwhile, we ate the Herb Roasted Half Chicken with rice pilaf, which was very good and filling. Amtrak may not rise to the level of excellence of a fine Seattle restaurant, but its meals are good enough to satisfy hungry travelers.
After dinner, we reclaimed our seats and watched as the train passed through a mountain landscape choked with smoke from nearby forest fires. We could not see any flames, but the fires were nearby.
Once it grew dark outside, we grew sleepy. After all, it had been a long day with an early ferry ride across Puget Sound, a cab ride to the train station, and then a long train ride. The gentle motion of the rails induced easy sleep in the reclining seats.
We were unexpectedly awakened before dawn by the Conductor saying that we were 12 minutes from Sacramento, and that it was time to gather our things. Amazingly, we were a full hour ahead of schedule when we pulled into the station, and were able to make an earlier and better rail connection for the rest of the trip into Fresno.
Once again, I was satisfied with rail travel. It is far more relaxing than flying, with better seats, freedom to roam the train, and a better space for working on a computer. What’s not to like, other than the snack bar’s offerings?
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